Avoiding the Improper Sympathy Gift

by Jerri Haaven, Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant 

Sympathy gifts can be uplifting to the bereaved.

Image by A*

A man hastily rushes through the doors of a church to attend his aunt’s funeral service. He plops down next to a woman sitting alone. After several eulogies he leans over and asks, “Why do they keep calling Mary, ‘Margaret’?”

“Because that’s her name,” whispers the woman.

The man fidgets, clearly uncomfortable. “But isn’t this the Lutheran church?”

“Sir, I believe you are at the wrong funeral,” the woman says.

Neither could stifle their laughter, and the pew squeaked as the humor of the moment got the best of them.

True stories like this are rare, but the serendipitous and ironic nature of a humorous moment can be a gift for the bereaved. Interrupted grief, which is both healing and comforting, provides reprieve to a hurting heart. Sympathy gifts also provide momentary distraction away from sadness, and they can even introduce a feeling of comfort.

Are there "inappropriate" sympathy gifts?

I recently read a story about a man dating a young woman whose aunt had died. Wanting to impress the young woman, he bought her a Keurig coffee maker – as a gift of sympathy – because he knew she wanted one. He openly admits that it probably wasn’t his best idea.

So, what is an appropriate gift? When I was a child, it was customary to bring a hot dish to the family who had experienced a loss. Many still follow this tradition. Flowers continue to be a common expression of sympathy. And many people who attend a funeral simply add cash to a sympathy card, presumably to help offset the costs for the family.

But is there anything else we can do or give? As the funeral industry evolves, the number of products that are available today to express our sympathy has increased. The key is to select a gift with the bereaved in mind. Remember, too, that a sympathy gift recognizes loss, and is unlike any other choice of gift.

Keepsakes and other sympathy gifts

Here are a few tips to get you thinking in the direction of what might be an appropriate sympathy gift:

  • What are the religious beliefs of the bereaved, if any? Sending someone a Celtic cross cremation pendant if they are Jewish, for example, would likely not be appreciated.
  • What are the circumstances of the death? (e.g., loss of pet, loss of a friend, loss of mother, suicide). Your selection can reflect the personal loss of the bereaved by choosing a gift that speaks to the situation. Cremation keepsakes such as the crimson rose stem reflect a thoughtful selection symbolizing love, or the feeling of cherishing.
  • What are the age and gender of the bereaved?
  • What do they enjoy (e.g., hobby, gardening, nature, food)? A wood cremation keepsake accented with a hand-cut hummingbird would be appreciated by a nature lover.

Look for something that has meaning, or fits the temperament and lifestyle of the one who is grieving. The last thing you might want is your expression of kindness re-gifted, or left unopened in a closet, or worse yet that it unintentionally offends! 

A big trend in the Northeast of the United States has been what they are calling "Memory Lamps". Memory Lamps are small beautifully designed lamps that are gifted to the bereaved instead of candles or perishables. They now turn up for memorials at church services and other venues during memorial events. Some of them even have small compartments to put a little bit of cremation ashes. 

For someone who has lost a beloved pet, a hand-crafted glass sun catcher captures the joy a pet often brings. A memory box can be used as a keepsake to store mementos of a loved one, such as hair, flowers from the funeral, or a small amount of cremated ashes. These expressions of our sympathy will be appreciated and enjoyed by the survivors for many, many years.

If you are still stumped as to what would be appropriate, listen to your heart. An act of kindness often speaks more than a gift. Maybe it’s raking the yard of a widower, or doing grocery shopping for a friend who lost her mom, or just sitting quietly with someone who has experienced the loss of someone they love. For the widow or widower, Living with Loss: Meditations for Grieving Widows, gives a year of inspiring words that is sure to be kept on the nightstand.

No expression of sympathy goes unnoticed. The key is to choose a gift that reflects the bereaved and his or her personal loss.

 *Image can be found here: http://bit.ly/2aoFvfz

Jerri Haaven is a freelance writer, and a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant. When caring for her dad, who suffered from dementia and COPD, Jerri struggled with the negative side effects of his illness. She developed positive outlets to express herself and recover from her loss. Today as a certified Grief Recovery Specialist and Celebrant, she uses her skills to help people who are in the midst of their own personal story of grief and loss. 

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