Sympathy Cards and Funeral Potatoes

Have you ever wondered what to do or say when someone dies?

Many years ago a co-worker called me from the office where I had worked for a couple of years to inform me that another older co-worker had passed away from cancer. She gave me the details of the funeral. I wanted to attend because I respected this man who had hired, trained and encouraged me in my former job; yet, I was young and unsure of the proper funeral etiquette. I feared that I might say or do the wrong things. In the end I decided not to attend and still regret my choice today.

Since then I’ve experienced the death of my grandmother, my best friend, and, most recently, my father-in-law. I’ve also helped behind the scenes during times of death as a leader and volunteer in the Relief Society, the women’s organization of the LDS Church.  Most often these deaths were sudden or tragic. Some were expected, but they were all sad for those who lost someone.

In the years of exposure to this inevitable life experience, I know I may have said the wrong thing to the family or in passing the news to others. More often, though, I’ve respectfully offered sympathy or service where I can and aided the mourning process. I spoke at the funeral of my friend, Holly. I tended the house of a mourning family while they attended the funeral. I’ve baked bars and hot dish in Minnesota and made jello salad and funeral potatoes in Mormon communities. I’ve sent flowers and written heart-felt cards.

Whatever you give, give something. Any small expression of sympathy or service adds to the cumulative efforts of all; every thoughtful and generous act helps.

My father-in-law passed away on January 11. We were on a plane to be with Paul’s mother and siblings within 10 hours of receiving news. Neighbors and friends left plates of food on my mother-in-law’s doorstep—eggs from backyard chicken coops and cookies baked by the boys from his Sunday class. Friends and relatives brought freezer lasagnas and chicken pot pies. The mortuary floral shop told us they wouldn’t be able to get tulips for the casket, but without knowing this Paul’s cousin Amy dropped by with a bouquet of tulips from Target.

Those who attended to our physical and emotional needs helped us feel love during the week of funeral arrangements. We arrived back at our home one week later to a mailbox full of sympathy cards that buoyed us even more. Many of these cards were sent by older individuals who’d known the sting of death themselves; fewer were from people who were under fifty.

I taught my children that a sympathy card in the mail is always appropriate and that we should never let this pattern be lost with the passing generations.

In contrast, during that same week, the day after my father-in-law’s death, we received the horrific news of the earthquake in Haiti. The newspapers that arrived on the same doorstep where we received loving support, showed many who wouldn’t even have a chance to mourn with a proper burial.

The funeral helped us process, remember, receive. And now, my thoughts need to turn to others so that I can be reminded that I have been given so much. A statement by the First Presidency of the LDS Church called for additional donations for those who suffer in Haiti, but just as important to me were these words:

People are frightened, bewildered, and wholly uncertain about their future. In addition to what people can do in helping with food, water, and shelter, there needs to be a calming influence over that troubled nation. We invite our people everywhere to supplicate God for a spirit of calm and peace among the people as urgent aid and reconstruction efforts continue.

I’m reminded that when others are hurting and I think I have nothing to offer, I can always pray for them.


  1. Terresa Wellborn
    Jan 29, 2010

    I love this post.

    I lost my grandma two weeks ago. I detailed her passing and the miraculous events leading up to her death in an essay on my blog (“Death doulas”).

    While nothing can prepare you for death, it has pushed us into a wide open realm of empathy for others that we couldn’t comprehend before.

    Now I get the importance of sympathy cards mailed, the plates of food quietly brought in, the hugs and tears shared.

    I read today the quote, “Mortality hunts and we live fleeing.” It is so true. But I’m tired of fleeing and so glad to be processing this loss of my gram, however raw it feels some days.

    And so glad my gram is with loved ones, as a spirit now, on the other side. She is in good hands.

  2. Emalee
    Jan 29, 2010

    I am one of those who has not had the opportunity yet to experience the death of close loved ones. When my Grandpa died, I was only 8, and I did not really know what was going on. I am awkward when it comes to expressing sympathy and ignorant of funeral etiquette at this point still. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and for the reminder that we can ALWAYS pray. And I am sorry for your loss and the loss of your family. I hope that you are comforted.

  3. David Jensen
    Jan 31, 2010

    I always enjoy reading your writings. You really have a talent for expressing yourself in the written word.



  4. Jenna
    Feb 2, 2010

    Thank you for sharing this. I can so relate to the regret that comes from not doing anything to show our support and sympathy. You put it so well when you said,

    “Whatever you give, give something. Any small expression of sympathy or service adds to the cumulative efforts of all; every thoughtful and generous act helps”.

    It is so true. Simple gestures of sympathy are all that we can do. Instead of getting overwhelmed and then doing nothing. When we are afraid of saying the wrong thing we can simply be a comforting presence without having to offer any advice.

  5. Rebecca
    Feb 10, 2010

    This is a great post. So well thought out and wonderfully written.

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