Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with condolence notes. Not only have I written many condolence cards, but also I’ve been the recipient of others’ sympathy. And yet even with all my experience, each time I have to write a condolences note it’s still difficult. But the fact of the matter is that condolence cards are so appreciated, and it’s worth pushing past any anxiety you may have about what to say to show a friend how much you care.

To help you write a heartfelt condolence note, I’ve put together these three tips that offer solutions to some of the problems that I know people face when writing condolence cards.

Problem 1: I don’t know the person who died

If I don’t know the person who died, I often find myself asking, “What can I possibly say?” I assume that others who knew the person better than I did will be better at comforting my friend…so maybe my friend doesn’t need my condolence card.

Solution: Focus on my friend, not on the person who died

The truth is that my friend needs support from all around. If I am thinking about her and wishing her well in this difficult time, then my friend should know that! I write a card that focuses less on the person who died, and more on the impact that that person had on my friend. I write things like, “I’m sorry for your loss. Although I didn’t have the pleasure of getting to know your grandpa, I remember how much your eyes lit up when you talked about your annual fishing trips. I know you must be missing him so much, and I’m here for you if you want to talk about how you’re feeling.” By focusing on my friend and how she may be feeling, I’m able to write a note that is honest and supportive.

Problem 2: What difference can I make?

Sometimes, I think no matter what I can say to my friend, I won’t be able to make a difference. My friend is likely in immense pain, and who am I to think that I can help her? I worry that no matter how much time I spend choosing the exact words to express my compassion, it really won’t matter and it won’t really make my friend feel any better. 

Solution: Make my supportive presence known

In this situation, it’s important to just make my presence known, and let my friend know that I’m thinking of her. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what I say; I know that my friend is struggling, and I know that cannot take away her burden. What I can do is let her know that I’m here for her and thinking of her.

Problem 3: What the heck do I say?

Whenever I write a condolence note, I cannot help but fear that I will say the wrong thing, and upset rather than console, my friend. I become obsessive about the “right” and “wrong” things to say. Not knowing what to say can sometimes paralyze me.

Solution: Speak from the heart, with sensitivity

While there aren’t really “right” and “wrong” things to say to a friend who’s experienced a loss, there are some things that feel better and worse to receive in a condolence note. (Trust me, I’ve seen it all.) Phrases like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I’m thinking of you,” and “I’m here for you” are all generic-but-sensitive ways of communicating your sympathy. Sharing a memory of the person who died and offering to help your friend through this difficult time are also good things to say.

And there are certain phrases that are best to avoid, specifically making assumptions about what happened and how your friend is feeling. Unless you know for sure that your friend believed in an afterlife, leave out phrases like, “I know he’s in a better place.” Don’t discuss any of the ailments the person suffered before he or she died; your friend doesn’t need to be reminded of that. And don’t tell your friend that she’ll feel better soon. Although your intentions might be good, it’s important to let your friend feel what she’s feeling, and know that you’ll be there for her no matter what.

If all else fails, get a nice card and simply write something along the lines of, “Please accept my sincere sympathies.” The fact that you took the time to do this will show that you care, and will undoubtedly make your friend feel supported.

Yesterday, actor James Gandolfini died at age 51 in Italy, apparently from a heart attack. (Gandolfini is best known for his role as Tony Soprano in the HBO hit series "The Sopranos," as well as roles in films such as "True Romance," "In the Loop," and "Zero Dark Thirty.") According to TMZ, Gandolfini was in Italy to attend the 59th Taormina Film Festival in Sicily. Presumably, his body will be brought back to the United States for a funeral here. So what happens now? 

Every year, hundreds of American citizens die while traveling abroad. In fact, in 2012, 833 Americans died abroad of non-natural causes. (There are no statistics on how many Americans traveling abroad died of natural causes.) So what happens when an American dies outside of the country? We've broken down the order of operations for how to logistically handle a death abroad.

1. Contact the consulate or embassy in the place the person died. According to the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs:

The Bureau of Consular Affairs assists the next-of-kin to convey instructions to the appropriate offices within the foreign country, and provides information to the family on how to transmit the necessary private funds to cover the costs overseas. Upon issuance of a local death certificate, the nearest embassy or consulate may prepare a Consular Report of the Death of an American Abroad. Copies of that report are provided to the next-of-kin or legal representative and may be used in U.S. courts to settle estate matters.

2. Decide if you need to travel to the country. Depending on the laws of the place the person died, there may be rules around who can claim the body, make decisions about transporting the body, and sign the necessary paperwork to get the person back to the US. The local consulate or embassy should be able to help you determine if you should go abroad, and may be able to tell you which airport you should fly into and how to get to the consulate or embassy once you arrive. Be aware that the US government will not help you pay for the cost of a plane ticket, or any other expenses related to collecting the body.

2.a. Hire a translator. If you do decide to travel to the country where the person died, you'll want to hire a translator who can help you communicate with the variety of foreign professionals you'll need to work with. Depending on the circumstances of the death, there may need to be an autopsy; you'll likely have to work with a local funeral home in that country; and there will probably be lots of foreign paperwork that you'll need to sign. Having a translator who can help you navigate these areas (hospital, funeral, legal) will make the whole process easier.

3. Find a US funeral home. The foreign consulate or embassy will help you coordinate on the foreign side of things, but you'll need a funeral home that you can work with in the US. It's a good idea to work with a funeral home that has experience in dealing with the country where the person died, since they'll already understand the process of that particular country. To figure out if the funeral home has the right experience, just call around and ask. Also, it's a good idea to make sure that the funeral home can accommodate any time differences that may be involved. As most funeral homes operate on a 9-5 schedule, they may be closed when the foreign funeral home or consulate needs to be in touch with them, so make sure that the funeral home you hire is willing to work on a nontraditional schedule for you.

4. Gather the person's belongings. Whether you go to the country or not, you'll probably want to make arrangements to have the person's personal belongings collected and brought back to the US. This may include everything from the person's passport and any relevant visas (which may be legally necessary in order to transport the body) to the person's clothes, accessories, and other items that he or she was traveling with.

5. Ask your network for help. When someone dies abroad, there can be an overwhelming amount of bureaucracy. Whether you have a friend who can speak the language of the country you're dealing with, or you have a friend whose uncle's best friend's son is in the State Department, or your aunt's hairdresser's son is a travel agent who can get you a good deal on a last-minute international flight, reaching out to your network for support can provide a variety of different types of support. You don't have to handle everything on your own.

via TMZ

A few nights ago I got a desperate call from a close friend: “Can I wear sneakers to a funeral service?”

I was a little surprised that this friend, a very fashionable guy, didn’t know what to wear to a funeral. But it made me think: even if their designer jeans fit them perfectly, even if they know how to tie a Windsor knot, and even if they’ve subscribed to GQ Magazine for years, lots of guys just don’t know what to wear to a funeral service. (And for those without designer jeans or GQ subscriptions, the challenges can be even greater.) Normally, I would've directed him to my new video, “Five Tips for what Men Should Wear to a Funeral," and point out to him that sneakers are generally not appropriate.

I knew, however, that my friend had just had foot surgery and was uncomfortable in dress shoes. And so—whether he didn’t have the right shoes or didn’t own a suit jacket—I reminded him of the crucial point that we often forgot when we’re stressing over what to wear to a funeral: The most important thing is not what you are wearing, but the fact that you are there! I emphasized to my friend that, although sneakers are typically a “no-no” (and he would be best in dark-colored shoes rather than multi-colored running or white tennis shoes), in this case he should focus less on his footwear and more on comfort: the comfort of his feet and the comfort he’d bring to the family by attending the funeral.

Funerals are about remembering the person who died and being there for the grieving family. We attend funerals to show our love and support. Proper attire is one way to show this consideration, but don’t sweat the details. The family is going through a tough time, and your support throughout the process is more important than the shoes you’re wearing.

Everplans has been featured in an article on The Huffington Post! From the piece:

New York-based Everplans, which recently received a $1 million investment, is free and focuses on providing guides written by its staff with consultation from lawyers, funeral directors, clergy and counselors. It also lets users register for an online invitation system to organize funerals.

"As people are living farther and farther from their parents and farther and farther from their religious communities, they have less access to their religious traditions and their family traditions," said Abby Schneiderman, the 33-year-old co-founder of Everplans, explaining how the idea for the two-year-old site came about. Formerly a music service startup co-founder and employee of a tech incubator, Schneiderman said her interest in creating an online guide to the complicated and little-known facets of end-of-life planning increased after her brother died a year ago. Today, the site has hundreds of articles and a blog that covers topics ranging from "death, dying, and dealing with it" to "how to be a friend to a friend who's sick."

We're so proud to be featured,  especially alongside all the other great startups and organizations mentioned in the piece.

via The Huffington Post

This Sunday is going to be an emotionally difficult day for me. While many people will be celebrating how amazing their dads are, I will be reminded of how wonderful my dad was.

For twenty-one years of my life, I was blessed with having the best dad in the world. He taught me how to ski when I was two and a half; he put all meetings aside to cheer me on at my squash tournaments; and he frequently reminded my mother, brother and me that we were the center of his life. Dad sang me “The Farmer in the Dell” and told me to “be the Cheese,” encouraging me not to be afraid to forge my own path, even if that meant standing alone. He taught me how to be self-confident, why I should be a diehard NY Giants fan, and always told me that I looked “the most-est beautiful. ” I knew I would always have his support. And I still feel encouragement, even though he’s gone.

But even all the good memories don’t make up for how hard Father’s Day can be. So, I’ve created a video for those of us who have to get through Father’s Day without our fathers, and I’ve offered 5 tips for how to cope. My 5 tips are:

1. Embrace the holiday
2. Spend time with others who loved him
3. Appreciate what you did have
4. Accept the change
5. Avoid the junk

These might seem vague, but watch the video! These tips are based on my six years of experience celebrating Father’s Day without my dad, and I‘ve found them to be really helpful in my own life.

When the topic of Father’s Day comes up, lots of people give me the same doleful pity eyes. I know they’re just trying to be sympathetic, but I don’t feel bad for myself. Yes, Father’s Day is a tough day for me, but that’s ok!  Although my time with my idol and biggest fan was cut short, I had those twenty-one magical years; saying I’m fortunate is a gross understatement. Yes, I will long for my dad on Father’s Day, but with teary eyes, I smile, knowing how lucky I am to honestly admit, “I miss him every day.”

Death, Dying, and Dealing with It

Three years ago, I could never have imagined that I’d be contributing to a blog about end of life. I was a new mom, focused on reading parenting books and blogs—thinking about the beginning of life, not the end. My husband, son, and I had a comfortable, happy life in Philadelphia, and enjoyed having much of our family nearby in Washington, DC and New York. We were like most new families: stumbling along trying to figure out how to be good parents and how to still be good to ourselves, each other, our friends and our families despite our new responsibilities. Death was the last thing on my mind.

But during the summer of 2009, before my son turned one year old, my mom was hospitalized with pneumonia. At first it seemed like no big deal. My mom was otherwise healthy. She was weeks before her seventieth birthday, and barely looked sixty. While not one to exercise a lot, she was very active and naturally svelte. We all assumed that with a couple of weeks of antibiotics she’d be back to her old self in no time.

I got the first inklings that something wasn’t right when I visited her at the hospital and there was some talk about the antibiotics not working. After chest x-rays and switching antibiotics, they decided to drain some fluid from her lungs and send her home with oxygen, new antibiotics, and a follow-up appointment for a CT scan. A week later, back home in Philly, I got a call from my dad: my mom didn’t have pneumonia. She had lung cancer. Stage IV adenocarcinoma.

I knew nothing about adenocarcinoma, but I knew that Stage IV was bad. Even before talking to a doctor, I knew that this was the beginning of the end, that the end couldn’t be too far away, and that it would probably be pretty ugly. My mom didn’t want to know anything about her chances of survival, but my brother—who lived near my parents in DC—and I wanted to know everything. My dad was caught somewhere in the middle: he wanted to be informed, but like my mom, he wasn’t ready to hear that the end was near. My mom suggested that my brother and I talk to the doctor without her and ask whatever questions we wanted. Between her doctor and our own research, here’s what we learned: there’s no cure, the best you can do is keep the disease in check with chemo (often called “palliative chemo”) and that about 99% of those diagnosed with Stage IV adenocarcinoma do not survive 18 months.

Amazingly, my mom fell into that other 1% of cases: she didn’t die right away. She beat everyone’s expectations and almost made it to the two-year mark. But four months before she passed away, in a cruel twist of fate, I was diagnosed with my own cancer.

In January 2012, I became pregnant, and we began hoping that my mom would be around long enough to meet our second child. Instead of having a child though, I suffered a miscarriage and was diagnosed with a molar pregnancy—a rare condition in which the placenta grows irregularly and becomes tumorous. Most often a molar pregnancy can be resolved just with surgery, but two months later I found out that I was in the unlucky minority for whom it turns into cancer. You read that right. Instead of having a baby, I got cancer.

So here I am, a year later, newly cancer-free and without my mom, doing something I’d never imagined doing: telling the story of this insanity on a blog about death, dying, and dealing with it. Over the next few months, I’ll shed more light on my mother’s decline and death, my own struggle with facing mortality, and what it’s been like trying to maintain some semblance of sanity throughout. I’ve been through it all, and hopefully by sharing it, we can learn from each other.

We've talked on the blog before about how to help a friend who's experiencing a hardship and what to say (and not to say) when offering sympathy. Every time the topic comes up—whether on Facebook or Twitter or in our personal lives—it's clear that this is an issue that we all want to talk about and that we could all use a little guidance around. Thankfully, now there's a book for that: How to Be a Friend to a Friend Who's Sick by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

In today's New York Times, Judith Graham shares an interview with Ms. Pogrebin to talk about her personal experiences of being sick (she was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago), and what being a patient taught her about being a better friend. From the interview:

Q. When you were ill with breast cancer back in the fall of 2009 and early 2010, what did you most want from your friends?
A. I wanted them to really tune into my moods. Because I’m somebody who sometimes needs a lot of love and sometimes needs to be left alone. And the illness heightened those extremes. Being sick magnifies everyone’s essential characteristics.

Q. What kinds of responses were most helpful to you?
A. The people who asked, “Would it be good if I came over now, would you rather I don’t come over at all, or would you rather I come on Saturday?” And the people who said, “I’m going to bring you a present, so you might as well tell me what you want.” I learned through these interactions that you can be direct and candid — on both sides.

Q. What kinds of responses were most off-putting?
A. That everyday question, “How are you?,” with the portentous overlay of tragedy. You would say, “Fine.” And then they would say, “How are you, really?,” with a sort of sanctimony bordering on pity. In normal discourse it’s common to say, “How are you?” And we all say, “Great, fine.” But when a sick person is asked, “How are you?,” we have to calculate how much we’re going to tell and how much someone really wants to know. If it turns out someone is just going through the motions in asking, that leaves a really sour taste in your mouth.

Q. So, what’s a friend supposed to do?
A. Ask, “What are you feeling?” That will elicit a much more honest answer. Then the person who’s been sick can say, “I’m really depressed and tired of people asking me how I am, and I want to normalize my life.” That’s how I felt: I really didn’t want to revisit my diagnosis and the fear I’d felt.

Q. What about when someone’s died? That’s often awkward.
A. Tell the truth. Say something like, “I feel so sad for you.” And if you have a memory, give it. Tell how you’ll always remember how beautifully this woman’s husband played the cello or how his smile could light up the room, or how your friend’s mother had the most magnificent voice. Something that establishes that the person left a mark on your life and acknowledges the meaningfulness of the life that’s just ended.

For the complete interview, visit The New Old Age blog. And for our tips on how to express sympathy, see our article How to Express Sympathy: What to Say and What Not to Say.

via The New York Times

On May 29, 2013, an event that many in the funeral industry had been anticipating for years finally came to fruition: Service Corporation International (SCI), America’s largest provider of funeral, cremation and cemetery services, acquired the second largest, Stewart Enterprises. According to SCI’s press release announcing the acquisition, the deal “has an enterprise value of $1.4 billion.” The CEOs and shareholders were pleased; both companies saw a rise in stock price after the announcement. 

SCI released that they were keen on this acquisition because not only would they obtain more funeral homes and cemeteries but also, they were attaining them at a time when they could bank on the baby boomers aging. According to Reuters

Large-scale consolidation in the highly fragmented funeral business has long been on the cards, with the industry looking to sell more pre-planned funeral contracts to the 76 million baby boomers in the United States.

SCI believes it can profit from of these 76 million people—not only when they die, but also beforehand, by convincing them to pre-arrange their own funerals. (SCI anticipates that this will bring in about 9 billion dollars for the company.)

Of course, there are those who are not pleased with the acquisition. In this situation, it’s the independent funeral home owners. One, Tom Crean, made a short film in which he compared himself to Don Quixote. He fears that as SCI gains over ten times the revenue of its nearest competitor not only will he be put out of business, but also citizens will be penalized with higher corporate prices and less personal service.

I’m not going to take a stand on the acquisition and the growing of SCI. I will, however, agree with both SCI and the independents that everyone should pre-plan his or her funeral! This means that you take the initiative to go to the funeral home and work with a licensed funeral director to plan out what you’d like when your time comes. It means deciding whether you want to be buried or cremated (and where you want to go after that), picking your casket, and even choosing the flowers, and then (possibly) paying for the arrangements. You might think that sounds crazy. I want to tell you: it’s not!

Tom Crean appropriately quotes Don Quixote saying, “Too much sanity may be madness. And maddest of all, to see life as it is and not as it should be.” In “life as it is” we don’t think about or talk about our own funerals because we’re afraid. In “life as it should be” we know what we want for our funerals, we make decisions ahead of time, and we share our choices with our families, relieving them of the burden of last-minute, super-stressful decision-making. When we pre-plan, we don’t have to fear being taken advantage of by the mega conglomerates because we go into the funeral homes not when we are grieving, not when we are emotionally drained, and not when we’re primed to be taken advantage of.  Instead, we will take the time to visit multiple locations and meet with different directors. We will decide not only whom we want to work with, but also what we want our send-offs to look like.

This might sound bizarre to some of you, but take a step back and ask yourself why. I cannot think of another significant event that we plan last minute.  Imagine planning a wedding two days before the guests arrive! Would you be able to choose a venue under the pressure of an imminent deadline? Would you be able to pick exactly which flowers you wanted? Could you remember each song that you wanted played? The bride certainly would not be able to find her perfect dress... 

You might protest, noting that you are not the one attending your funeral—and that’s a fair point. But let me tell you: even if you don’t care about what happens at your funeral, by planning in advance, you are giving your family an invaluable gift by not burdening them with the task. Let it be your final loving gesture to them; let them grieve and not plan. 

I worked in the industry for multiple years. Every day, I saw families struggle to figure out exactly what their loved one would have wanted.  “If only we knew….” was a sentence I heard too often.  I unfortunately was able to empathize with these clients because I too had been in that painful situation. When my father passed away, not knowing what he wanted, I fell into the trap that many others do; I overspent. We cannot help but think that this is the final gesture we can make for our loved ones; it seems reasonable to break the bank for them. But it’s not necessary.

Empower yourself! Accept that you are not invincible. You, like every other person in the world, will have a funeral. So make it yours, and make it great.

“I don’t know what I want to do, but I do know that I will never wear a suit to work.” At the time, I wasn’t lying when I made that bold statement to my college advisor. I was a bubbly and vivacious young Manhattanite who was trying to choose among exciting jobs in the fashion, event planning, or maybe even non-profit worlds. I had the passion to work in those industries; all I had to do was choose one.

But my plans changed. Just before I graduated from NYU, my 60-year-old father, my idol, lost his battle with cancer. He was the most important person in my life, and I was convinced that he was too good for a typical funeral.

So I used my event planning skills and gave my father a worthy sendoff: friends delivered funny speeches, roasting my father; we covered his casket in peonies, my mother’s favorite flowers (which were out of season at the time); and at the end of the service we played The Rolling Stones and David Bowie, and everyone danced their way out of the chapel. Not only did I shock and impress the hundreds of guests who attended, but also I surprised myself. I found that I really enjoyed planning funerals! And actually, it all made sense: planning funerals combined the best of all the careers I’d been interested in.

After graduating, I stunned my family and friends and I took a job at Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel, the funeral home where we held my father’s funeral. For over three years I worked with the talented funeral directors there to help families through their extremely (and uniquely) difficult times. Sometimes I assisted with organizing a 1500-person funeral; sometimes I was simply a shoulder for a widow cry on. No matter the task, I felt privileged to be a part of helping people through the emotional and logistical challenges of a funeral. As time went on, I also had the opportunity to work with our prearrangement counselors, sitting with families as they discussed and choose what they wanted their farewells to look like.

Through my work at the funeral home, my passion to help people after they’ve lost a loved one grew. I realized that I wanted to reach more people than just those who came through the Campbell’s doors, so I got my MBA. Perhaps, from a business standpoint, there was a way  to reach and assist more people.    

It was at this time that I was able to connect with Everplans. I soon realized that their entire team shared my passion for removing the fear and helping make these hard topics more approachable. They, like me, want to make the difficult task of planning as easy as possible—whether planning a funeral or planning for your family’s financial future.

I know from experience that no one can predict for sure when a death is going to occur. Unlike many, I accept that death is inevitable. My hope is that in working with Everplans I can help people think about things like funerals before the time comes. Rather than fearing the experience and brushing aside funeral planning, I want to show people that with the right information and the right attitude, the end doesn’t have to be overwhelming and scary—it can be a joyous celebration, just the way you’d like it to be, complete with The Rolling Stones.

I'll be contributing to the blog with my thoughts on funeral planning and the funeral industry; I'll be tweeting @FuneralGuruLiz; and I'm also on Quora, answering all your funeral queries. Be sure to stick around!

In the New York Times this week there was a piece on the importance of talking with your parents about their financial affairs. We couldn't agree more.

Talking to your family—whether parents talking to children, or children talking to parents—is one of the most important things we can do to prepare ourselves for the future. Financial, legal, and medical issues are going to come up for all of us. Knowing what mom or dad wants, and having those wishes spelled out in legal documents, not only relieves adult children of a huge burden, but also ensures that parents' financial and medical instructions are followed in the way they want. Naming a power of attorney and health care proxy is the first step that parents should take. Creating a will is essential as well, especially if parents have complex assets or young children. And organizing passwords and important documents, and then actually sharing the location of that information, is the third essential to-do. These are difficult conversations to have, and the logistics can feel overwhelming, but everyone will benefit in the end.

And to read about other people's experiences in planning (and not planning), check out the comments section of the piece.

via New York Times