No one likes to talk about it, but I will.
A reader once confided in me about how guilty she felt for not being able to go to the funeral of her best friend’s mother. She claims she felt awkward, and just wouldn’t have known what to say. Now she wishes she had been there for her friend.
In Italian communities a wake is an event that marks a major transition in the lives of all those affected by their loved one’s death. The purpose of attending a wake—or a wedding, baptism, or other major occasion— is that it brings people together in solidarity. Solidarieta’ is the foundation of Italian life.
The truth is, we all have a hard time with wakes. They are not happy occasions by any means, and often they dredge up emotions pertaining to our own losses. They are, however, a necessary part of community. The support we provide our friends in their time of distress will actually serve to help them to recover from crises more quickly, and that act of solidarieta’ will strengthen the bond of friendship and trust. Our presence alone—even without words—will mean the world to a friend who has just lost a loved one. The focus should be on that and no one will notice our own personal awkwardness or discomfort.
Researchers at the University of L’Aquila explored the psychological aftermath of the 2009 earthquake, by examining suicide rates from data collected by the Italian National Institute of Statistics. Suicide rates typically increase after disasters, especially among people who are emotionally fragile to begin with. Not in this case. Instead the number and rate of suicide following L’Aquila’s disaster actually decreased. Resilience and posttraumatic growth seemed to be a result of what the researchers called “protective factors” that offset some of the strong physical and psychological distress of the catastrophe that affected 105,000 inhabitants. The protective factors that lead to posttraumatic personal growth and resilience may be attributed to how community pulled together in volunteering efforts and reciprocal caring behaviors. In other words, being there for others in their greatest time of need is a gift that goes far beyond the actual acts of kindness you perform for them. Your very presence is a comfort that helps them to feel stronger in the face of crisis.
While wakes may upset us, the focus needs to be on the those we care about in their time of need. Cards and hot casseroles are great, but being there when they are saying their final good-byes is an act of generosity that a friend will remember forever.
Al bisogno conosce l’amico. A friend in need is a friend indeed.
For more support and tips in getting through loss for you (or as a gift to your friend), read Lemons into Limoncello: From Loss to Personal Renaissance with the Zest of Italy (HCI Books).