When loss occurs in a neighborhood, depending on the cause of the death and the type of relationship between neighbors, there are certain considerations and responsibilities that may arise. Although neighborhoods have become more transient today, it is still common for neighbors to be friends. Even in a short period of time, friendships may develop among the people who share yards, pass each other on the street or frequent the same shops and recreation areas. If the neighbors have lived together for years, the bond they share may be very intimate and deep.

At a time of loss it may be difficult to know what to do or how to react. Is it appropriate to express simple condolences as a neighborly gesture and sign of respect, or is more required? Even if you had no personal interaction with the deceased, thoughtful expressions of sympathy show compassion and empathy to the bereaved. Small acts of kindness will strengthen the friendship for years to come.

Things the neighborhood can do

When a neighbor experiences a personal loss, others can do several little things to offer encouragement. Check with neighbors who are close to them, or look in the local newspaper for an obituary or death notice for details surrounding the burial. If the time and location of the funeral and/or visitation is listed, it would mean that it would be appropriate to attend or send a gift.

The neighbors may want to try to attend the visitation together. This show of support can be very meaningful to the grieving family. By coming in a group, it can lessen the awkwardness for those who did not know the family well or for those who are new to the neighborhood.

Often neighbors will rally together to offer assistance – by sending flowers or a gift of food to the family. Sometimes gifts of food from neighbors in the days following the funeral can express compassion and assure the family that they are not forgotten.

Expressing condolences to casual acquaintances

Even if you are relatively new to the neighborhood, neighbors would appreciate expressions of sympathy. Sending a hand-written personal note of condolence or a visit to the funeral home would be an appropriate way to offer support during the difficult time.

Attending the visitation or funeral can be a positive way of showing your support by giving of your time and presence. Knowing the right words to say to someone that you do not know well can be challenging. Choose words that will express your sympathy and sorrow. “I am sorry for your loss,” or “Our thoughts are with you and your family during this difficult time” can be very meaningful. Avoid clichés that are overstated. For example, it is rarely appropriate to say, “I know how you feel.”

Expressing condolences to closer friends

In addition to ways that the entire neighborhood can show support, those closest to the family can provide some practical help that would be both meaningful and expedient. Here is a quick list of some of the ways you can help:

  1. Consider taking the children out for a meal or an activity to give them a change of pace from the stress surrounding the home. Children need moments to feel more normal in the midst of grief. The time away will also take a burden away from the parents.
  2. Give the family pet(s) some attention. Offer to take care of feeding and other needs the pets may have.
  3. Deal with the physical needs of the home. Simple tasks like mowing the lawn or shoveling snow takes another layer of busyness and pressure away from the family.
  4. Drop a gift in the mail. Inspirational books, fruit baskets or other gifts that come after the funeral remind the family that they are still in your thoughts.
  5. Offer to be a point person to friends and neighbors to convey needs, times that would be appropriate for visits, and other details to help the family return to a more normal schedule.

Loss during unusual circumstances

If someone in the neighborhood experiences a loss as the result of violence, not only is there sadness for the neighbor, but everyone suffers a sense of the loss of security. Grieving loss from a violent death is different first because it involves our safety and security. It is also different because it often involves a large group of outsiders who are not grieving but covering or processing the event. Dealing with the news, media, emergency personnel, coroners, police and those involved with the legal system only intensifies the feelings of being overwhelmed with hopelessness and frustration.

Neighbors can find comfort with each other as they try to reaffirm or re-establish security and order. Community resources such as counseling centers, Red Cross, or religious organizations can be instrumental in providing structure and support. Personal counseling may be necessary to help an individual overcome the hurdles to healing.

Since neighbors are often the first responders during times of disaster and loss, it might be wise to find ways to become acquainted with them prior to tragedy.