“Do I Have to Wear Black to a Funeral?” by Florence Isaacs; © 2020, The Countryman Press; 176 pages


I’m sorry.

Oops. Excuse me! Oops, my bad. Whoopsie.

There are many ways to express sorrow and compassion, and even more reasons to say them. So how do you know what’s right and what’s wrong in a devastating situation?  Read “Do I Have to Wear Black to a Funeral?” by Florence Isaacs and you can lay your mind to rest.

The bad news came with a phone call: someone died and, once you got over the shock, you didn’t know what to say. That’s OK; death can be awkward for most people, especially if it’s someone you don’t know well. So how do you act without seeming like an idiot, or worse? Grandma never had these problems.

No, she didn’t. Her social rules were laid-out and she didn’t have the Internet or cell phones to deal with. In today’s world, when even just “paying respects to the bereaved, you may face a thicket of relationships to sort out.”

Your first impulse may be to rush to the bereaved as soon as possible — which is fine, if you’re close. If not, give them space and be respectful, then plan to attend the funeral; the family will never forget that kindness. Discreetly seek information about the nature of the service: is it a “celebration of life” or a somber gathering at a place of worship you’re not familiar with? An obituary might offer clues.

At the service, don’t ask too many questions; it’s natural to be curious, but how or why someone died may be a sensitive subject. Remember that feeling awkward “isn’t just you”; everybody gets tongue-tied when someone’s died. As for what to say, sometimes there isn’t anything to say, and it’s okay to say so. Truly, though, it’s best to speak as little as possible, offer a hug or just a touch on the shoulder, and just listen. Let the bereaved set the tone.

“And then,” says Isaacs, “shut up.”

We are, says author Florence Isaacs, generally blundering creatures when it comes to death, which is normal. Most of us don’t have a lot of practice with it, so “Do I Have to Wear Black to a Funeral?” helps lessen the chances of missteps.

To a point.

Though Isaacs does an all-around great job on explaining many of the finer points of social expectations and communication issues, the words “it depends” are seen in this book a lot. At times, that may make readers feel as if they’re left hanging, left to do their own research. But look again: there’s no firm path, but guidance lies between those words — and if all else fails, a fall-back plan is here, too. It’s tricky, but it’s basic, both at the same time, and careful thought gives readers all the education they need.

That goes for young mourners who are new to loss, and for older readers who are unsure if technology is condolence-appropriate: “Do I Have to Wear Black to a Funeral?” is worth keeping on your shelf. Miss it, and you’ll be sorry.

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