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Lisa McLeod: What to do when your friend’s father dies, and other life crises

Janet Reno runs a great funeral.

How do I know this?

Because Former U.S. Attorney General Reno was a college chum of my father’s cousin. When my father’s cousin’s husband passed away 25 years ago, I did what any good Southern girl would do. I made a broccoli and cheese casserole and took it over to the house.

I was greeted by a very tall woman wielding a very large wooden spoon barring the kitchen door. She smiled (sort of) and said in a very firm voice, “Don’t bring that dish into this kitchen until you label it with your first and last name and log it into the food book.”

I didn’t realize I’d just been barked at by the then-Attorney General for the State of Florida, a woman who two years later would become U.S. Attorney General. In addition to managing the kitchen for what turned out to be a huge Southern funeral, Janet, as my family referred to her, also scripted the service and delivered the eulogy.

Politics were irrelevant. She showed up on a day when my cousin needed her.

I’ve been down the death road many times. I lost my younger brother in childhood, my mother died when I was in my 20s, and both of my husband’s parents have passed.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned: funerals matter.

When a friend helps you through a funeral, you never forget it. Since it’s unlikely that Janet Reno will be available, here are five things you can do when a friend loses a loved one:

1. Show up

When my husband’s father died, one of his friends drove 4 hours (each way) to attend the funeral. It was a million years ago, when we were in our 20s. Yet my husband still talks about how his friend Charles woke up at 4 a.m. to be there.

2. Don’t talk about yourself

People try to relate by saying, “I remember when I lost my mother.” That doesn’t help, at least not on the day of the funeral. People grieving a fresh loss don’t want to connect to your loss, they haven’t even processed their own.

3. Share a story

Funerals feel like an endless line of people giving you pitying looks saying, “I’m so sorry.” You shake their hands in a numb fog. The few you remember are those who share a funny or meaningful (and short) story about your loved one. Something as simple as, “I remember the time he brought his dog to school,” makes you smile and momentarily relieves the sorrow.

4. Bring food

When my friend’s husband died recently, two other friends and I handled the food for the memorial. Early that morning, we went to Costco, bought a boatload of food and paper products, and then spent a few hours prepping it before the service. It wasn’t that hard. But we felt like we had contributed, and it was one less thing for our friend to worry about.

Send a ham, take brownies, or go all out with a True Southern casserole with crushed potato chips and Ritz crackers on top.

5. Keep calling

Funerals are a day filled with people and tasks. The hardest part of losing someone isn’t the day you bury them. It’s the days, and weeks, and months that you have to live without them. Friends who keep calling help bring you back into the land of the living.