Death In An English Village And My American Expectations

Late yesterday afternoon the sound of a helicopter drew me out of the house. It is rare to hear any air traffic over our tiny village and after a quick look at the two emergency vehicles parked on our street, I hurried down to the far end of the road to see where the air ambulance was going to land.

Any time you hear a helicopter hovering low over the village, you can bet it’s here to help someone. We have several elderly people on our street and my first concern was for the welfare of a sweet man in his 90s who lives a few houses from ours near the small car in the photograph.

Some of my neighbors were outside watching to see where the helicopter was landing and who might be needing emergency care.

A few years ago, the elderly man I mentioned had a heart attack and the air ambulance landed in the same field on the other side of the hedge.

It turned out it was our next door neighbor they were coming to help, but after being inside the house for a while, they left without him.

The sky was on fire while we watched what was happening outside their home and one by one the emergency vehicles drove away without taking anyone with them. It was too late to change the outcome and we learned early this morning that our neighbor had died. I think he was younger than I am.

Things are done differently here when people die and today I feel like someone at the scene of an accident unsure about how to render aid. My heart hurts for my neighbor and I want to do something to help, but it has been suggested by several that a card through the mail drop in the door is the best way to offer our sympathy to her.

At home in Georgia there would be no question about what to do. I would be standing at the door now offering a casserole, or a meal of some kind, handing it over to a relative, or close friend tasked with accepting the offerings of those wishing to offer some comfort if only through a favorite recipe.

A death in the American South seems less constrained and more emotional than the three I’ve experienced here and even though I was not close to the couple, I wish I could do more.

I saw a car arrive this morning and a family member stayed the night so I know our neighbor is not alone. People won’t bring food here, John said it is just not done and would be considered odd. I can’t imagine anything more lonely than walking into the empty kitchen of a home visited by death.

It seems more sad to me somehow than countertops covered over with foil wrapped dishes, and plastic containers of sandwiches and cakes, meant to feed people as they come to pay their respects. I know that food doesn’t equal love, but in the south, it does mean we care.

I don’t know how many people will be coming to help her through this sad time, but I think I may hang convention and make a cake or something because odd or not, it’s a better way for me to say I am sorry for your loss than a card through the door.

20 thoughts on “Death In An English Village And My American Expectations

  1. How interesting that there is no food offered. Not only does it show that you care it is a very practical thing as the bereaved ones will be too busy to cook for a while. It’s always nice to have a full fridge/freezer and not have to worry about meal preparations for a couple of weeks.

  2. Considering her age being close to yours, maybe she’s open to new ways. I’m like you, I would probably do what we do here in Alabama and Georgia. If you think about how death affects you personally, someone showing they care means a lot. That’s what you remember and what brings you closer together.

  3. agreed. as a southerner, I can’t imagine not offering food. It’s what we do. And what a relief to not have to think about food when in the midst of grieving. But then again, maybe all this is a southern mentality.

    Southerners insist on feeding others, regardless of the event. As you say, food is a means by which we express our love and concern. So in a time of mourning, the family would naturally want to offer food to those who come by. If someone else didn’t make it, then the family would feel obligated to be in there cooking.

    Having spent 14 years married to a Brit, I found that food did not carry the same weight in their family. They ate more out of necessity than to fill any kind of emotional need.

    Making and drinking tea, on the other hand, carried the same kind of emotional appeal. Perhaps you could offer a box of Testco tea bags? Some milk or lemon to go with it? Then there would be no shortage for the many cuppa’ they will likely be brewing.

  4. Here my friends make meals and cakes for someone in distress , whether it is some passing or when a baby is born they cook for them for at least two weeks .. I think it would be a lovely idea for you to take the neighbour a cake .. and say that you are sorry to hear the sad news ..

    But I do understand what John is saying .. we are too reserved in this country .. take care xo

  5. What I found indescribably sad, was the fact that this was your next door neighbour you did not seem to know at all,. I am surprised to learn of the reserve of villagers.

    I always thought, garnered from all the English village fiction I have read, that folk in an English village know each other very well and villages form close knit communities. This post therefore surprised me. It is sad that people are becoming so insular, especially the elderly.

    I don’t know if the cake would be a good idea, as everyone seems to think that she should be left alone, but I certainly don;t think that anyone should be left alone in their grief.

    When my father passed away three years back at the age of 84, my sisters and I found it hard to accept condolences. When people would say we are sorry for your loss, or we know how you feel, we could feel the insincerity in their words and we wished they would just go away. The best thing I feel, has been when people have wanted to learn about him, encouraged me to share his memories and remember all the best things about him.

    Maybe you can just begin with small kindnesses and smiles and a few words of friendship. 🙂

  6. Hi Elizabeth,

    Everyone there knows that your an American and your customs are different from theirs, anyways. So, even if your neighbor does find your food offering “odd”, I can’t imagine that it would be anything but welcome. After all, isn’t that the point? To let her know that you care and you’re happy to help during her dark days? I guess it’s just my southern roots shining through but I’d find it impossible NOT to bring her food, knowing that her kitchen was empty. That’s so lonely! Plus, you know that she already has company arriving and needs something to feed them. Cake and tea are lovely together 😉


  7. I think you should do what feels right for you. I don’t believe anyone would be offended by a food gift and it shows you care and have made an effort. It was a sudden death so she is going to be in shock and may appreciate the kind thought. John is right, the British don’t usually offer food, however we are living in an ever increasing multicultural world and the traditions of others when they are meant as a warm gesture of friendship should be welcomed and embraced.

  8. I’m so sorry for the loss and I’ve been there too many times. I agree with you that being alone would not be the way for us in the US … and not for me. We so needed those comforts during times of despire.

    Do what you need to do for the family – and they will -if not now – later they will understand your ways and why you did what you felt you need to do.

    Follow your heart – it always seems to make the right decision in matters like these.


  9. Gill and John are both right. Do what is right for you.

    Maybe pop over with a cake and condolances. We are reserved, but to know that you are there if they need you, and that others are too helps. Hard thing to cope with what ever the age. I am sure she will appreciate the kind thoughts. xxx

  10. With the sadness of this man’s passing the response to your post is so very touching…My step father passed away last year and just the sight of the full counters always touched me. I agree with your readers, especially Gill. Do as you feel led.

  11. Hi Elizabeth,
    I have to say being a Brit with American relatives, in Hiawassee Georgia but living in the UK, I found death is treated totally different. I almost came to grief following a line of traffic in Georgia, fascinated by police cars coming in the opposite direction but not noticing that the whole stream of traffic had come to a halt out of respect for the funeral procession coming the opposite way.

  12. I agree with the folks who say go ahead and take food. You’re American – it’s a free pass to be “odd.” OTOH, you don’t want John to feel uncomfortable with your behavior. So perhaps it’s best to talk to him again..?

  13. Good for you. I say hang convention. I imagine that this is an incredibly lonely and sad time for your neighbor. And even if it’s not part of the local culture, loneliness is universal, and I bet your gesture will be appreciated.

  14. A Brit here – I have a very dear friend who lost a son (heartbreakingly, he was only 11 years old) 3 years ago. We (her girlfriends, neighbours and people she barely knew) all made meals and they were accepted with thanks. We are a more reserved bunch but a kindness is a kindness in any language.

  15. You are so right. In Ireland as soon as news of a death starts to circulate the women get cooking and baking a lifetime supply of casseroles or cakes to feed the many people that will walk through the door over the coming days. I would be so grateful of a cake if I were your neighbors family. One less worry to be able to offer it to visitors. It seems strange that it is not normal practice? I lived in England for 9 years but never experienced a death in my street so I never knew it was so different.

  16. It’s not just the south, it’s the midwest, it’s the northwest, it’s the far east (Korean). Food as a tangible expression of support. I’m sorry that it’s not easy to navigate the right expression for your neighbor. The whole experience sounds a bit unnerving and unsettling. I like the idea of some kind of homemade biscuits and tea that they can offer when people stop by.

  17. I read somewhere that it’s the custom in one culture — and it may be Jewish — to give a box of chocolates. The idea being the sweetness washing away the bitterness of the pain. I think it sounds like a very good idea.

  18. I am not very experienced in dealing with death, but have had instances where something has happened to me that was a shock to my system. My guess is that your neighbour may not even know herself what she wants from moment to moment, or likewise, it may change frequently as she struggles to come to terms with whatever she feels she needs to come to terms with, at whatever stage she is in the whole process. The best gift to me at such times is someone who can roll with that; to be there or go away; provide food; talk or not talk, just let me repeat the story over and over ..whatever it is.

    Everyone is different. My thought would be to let her tell you, if she wants to, what help you might be. But she won’t be able to tell you if she doesn’t know you are truly interested, in a gentle I’m-not-going-to-take-over-your-life-for-you way. How you feild in the question, I don’t know. But I do believe that people overlook the awkawardness of any asking, if they feel the wish in you is genuine, and will allow them the space to try and cope in ways that make sense to them.

  19. I feel that a cake, along with a card explaining this is your
    Southern way of expressing condolence at such a sad time, would work. We Brits are more reserved but usually open up once the initial introduction has been made – of course having been over here so long I can hardly be included in the ‘reserved’ bunch any longer!

    Sad days for a village I’m sure – even those inhabitants not well known make up a lovely place I’m sure.

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