Sad events can be special events too: An appeal to event planners

Sad events can be special events too

My life has been very fortunate. I have had to endure only a few sad and no tragic events. Recently, however, we had a death in the family where I was assigned the duties of organizing the funeral and related activities. This was the first time that I had to oversee such an event. I soon realized that although unique in its level of grief and confusing emotions, it is also a special event management challenge – albeit a very sad one.

With the benefit of a few weeks to gain a more objective perspective, I thought it might be helpful to share some views and lessons learned. In normal special events, there is the luxury of weeks if not months to plan and manage the event. What I now realize is that this sort of sad event presents an extraordinary number of details that need to be dealt with in days rather than weeks and months.

Complexity of arrangements

It is not just the complexity of funeral arrangements but issues concerning the Last Will and Testament such as how to probate the will; calculating the value of the estate’s assets and liabilities; contacting life insurance and pension plans; dealing with tax authorities; writing and placing an obituary; notifying friends and relatives some of whom you will be meeting for the first time; making last-minute travel and hotel arrangements; and sorting out and disposing of personal affects. To compound the difficulties, there is the need to incur some major expenses in a wide range of activities. When your emotional state is anything but calm and reasoned, you find yourself writing a number of large cheques and beginning to wonder if there are enough funds to cover the costs.

There is a very natural reluctance to avoid taking any actions or even giving any thought as to what needs to be done prior to the sad event. The irrational yet normal response is that to even admit that the worst could happen is tantamount to causing it to happen. Fortunately, my loss was anticipated for several weeks, and I was blessed with someone who had the great good common sense to pre-arrange a number of the details in advance.

Have a comprehensive plan

Given my recent experiences, I cannot imagine how one could manage an unanticipated tragedy that did have any pre-planning.

Having prided myself on being well organized, I now realize that there are numerous details that I should plan in the event of something happening to me – not that it will! Importantly, be sure to write everything down in one comprehensive memo giving explicit directions and key detailed information that will be required to manage the closing of the estate.

Nevertheless no matter how adequate the planning, it is still a stressful and under many circumstances, overwhelmingly devastating time. Yet sad events are also special events. Perhaps in terms of life’s memories, it is one of the most important events.

Appeal to event planners

My appeal to professional events planners is that if you have a friend or family member going through these difficult circumstances, there is no greater time that they could use your experience and professional support.

A few things in particular that the special events professionals could help with are:

  • Take care of the catering. There is generally a reception associated with the funeral. While to the events specialist this seems straight forward, to many people – especially at a time like this – the details of food services, beverages, estimates of the number of guests are subject to wild guesses and hurried decisions.
  • Order and arrange flowers. Flowers are a large part of the service and related events. Ordering and arranging flower presentations can require some experience and expertise.
  • Write the obituary. Many people are not skilled writers at the best of times. Writing a meaningful obituary against a tight deadline is a tough assignment.
  • Provide guidance concerning what to say at the service. People without public speaking experience will often be called on to say something at the service. A little guidance about making a making heartfelt yet succinct comments can be helpful.
  • Coordinate hotel and travel activities. Relatives and friends will arrive from out of town. Having someone experienced in dealing with travel issues can help manage costs and avoid mix-ups.
  • Draw up lists of people to be notified. These events often involve identifying distant relatives and long-lost friends. Sitting down with the aggrieved and working out a list can avoid wounded feelings.

By all means, reach out with your sympathies but also your management skills. Both kinds of support will be met with profound gratitude.

In the meantime, cherish all the time you have with your loved ones.

About the author:

George Bothwell has spent a career leading marketing and communications strategies to build corporate reputations in North America and Europe. He has acted as the senior marketing and/or communications officer at Bank of Montreal, Barclays Bank and Atomic Energy of Canada. In these capacities, he has held the corporate responsibility for special events including annual meetings, franchisee events, media conferences, financial analysts’ briefings, employee meetings and major sponsorship programs such as the Olympics. He began his career in the Government of Canada where he was Departmental Assistant to the Minister of Industry, Trade and Commerce; Secretary to the Foreign Investment Review Agency; and Vice Consul and Trade Commissioner at the Canadian Consulate in Philadelphia. After leaving the Government of Canada he was Vice President of Communications and Environmental Affairs for Coca-Cola Canada and Director of Packaging for Coca-Cola Europe. He has managed marketing and communications programs in Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. During his career he has lived in Ottawa, Toronto, Philadelphia, Brussels and London. He currently runs a consulting practice focusing on marketing and communications issues.

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