Two missed calls and one curt WhatsApp message, “Call me now!” from my elder sister, based in London, changed my life.

On Thursday, 6 June 2024, my younger brother passed away unexpectedly. Adrian was the fourth of seven children and the sibling after me. Although a four-year gap separated us, Adrian and I got on very well. He was brilliant, clinching a first-class degree in computing networking and communications technology from the University of Coventry. He was also the only member in our family (excluding our late father) to have clinched a first-class honours classification. He then earned an MSc in engineering business management from the University of Warwick. Adrian Okpere was a peacemaker, a committed Catholic, and extremely caring. He was also utterly generous with his time and resources, which he spent serving the church and supporting his community. His death was devastating. And that night, after hours of praying and crying, hoping he would be revived, I walked about dazed before announcing weakly to my husband that Adrian had gone.

Adrian left behind an incredible wife and three children who lived in another state in Nigeria. Since I was the only sibling who lived with family in Lagos, my other siblings prepared to travel from other continents for the funeral arrangements.

Although difficult, we got to work soon after the news. As siblings, we understood our mission: put aside our mourning to support our sister-in-law, now a widow. We needed to deliver befitting funeral activities for an exceptional man whose demise shocked his family, friends, colleagues, football mates, and extended family far and wide.

With incredible planning and support from our closest cousins, the funeral programmes—a night of tributes in an exquisitely decorated hall, two services of songs, and one funeral—all executed in two states in Nigeria, were a resounding success. From the decor, printed programmes, and the live tributes to the soloist belting out stirring songs with an operatic flair that made my eyes well (despite my steely resolve), Adrian was honoured in the ways he deserved.

But emotions were raw, and grief affects people in different ways, so ultimately, friction arose while preparing for the funeral. However, the beauty of our family is that our late father taught us the importance of patience, sacrifice, and empathy. These qualities helped us put aside negative energy, focus on supporting the widow, and ensure Adrian’s funeral activities were concluded within two weeks, on 21 June 2024.

Afterwards, I reflected on the time the family and some members of the extended family spent together, virtually and in person, preparing for the events. I also realised that two communication lessons were instrumental in successfully executing the programmes.

Lesson #1): Be empathetic

Grief separates, or grief unites.

Although we were all struggling with the loss, understandably, the most affected were those closest to Adrian — his lovely wife and children. Coming in second place was our elderly mother, who was visiting family in London when she heard the distressing news. In the last four years, she had lost her husband, brother, and close-in-law.

So, we, the siblings, needed to be empathetic in words and actions to console the widow, our mother, and others.

During mourning, there’s a tendency to believe you’re suffering the most. You may well be the closest person to the one you lost. But understand that no one exists in a vacuum, and there are many whose grief should be considered. Therefore, acknowledge those friends, confidants, in-laws, and others you might not know well (or at all) but who were shaken by the demise of your relative. Their pain is valid. You don’t get a medal for your suffering.

Condition your mind to become empathetic to all who are sorrowful. Demonstrate empathy in your warm/open body language and sit in quiet contemplation if words fail you when people visit. Listen attentively to anecdotes and allow people to share their memories and messages. Smile/laugh where appropriate as they recount their experiences and ask clarifying questions to show you care.

I was encouraged by different people explaining why Adrian was so precious to them. That was why I loved the night of tributes. Learning aspects of my brother, which I knew little about, was amazing because it was not Adrian’s way to draw attention to himself; he preferred to elevate others. Some people will ask inappropriate questions because they don’t know what to say or how to comfort you. You don’t need to answer; a polite smile can communicate boundaries.

Being empathetic also means accepting your limitations and generously delegating tasks to family and friends. Allow people to help you, even in little ways, and then thank them for their efforts.

You’re grieving. Everyone knows and will try to accommodate your different emotions. But remember your humanity. Shutting people down and refusing help will create overwhelm, heighten your dark moments, and cause you to feel alone and physically drained.

Communicate openly, and you will create opportunities for people to help carry your burden.

Lesson #2): Sprinkle your communication with tact

You may have strong opinions about some aspects of funeral planning. But if you’re not the closest person to the one who died, you should defer to the next of kin.

Tied to the first point, prioritise being empathetic. And you do so by carefully choosing your words. Remember that planning a funeral has two sides: the practical and the emotional. Therefore, you’ll need to strike a delicate balance between the two.

On the one hand, you may have the best vendors on speed dial or contacts that could get you the best deals with excellent quality. But if you adopt a do-as-I-say stance, you’ll face resentment that stalls progress. On the other hand, if you make suggestions based entirely on sentiment, you alienate others whose practical skills will ensure the smooth execution of the funeral programmes.

By being tactful, you open the door to cooperation, collaboration, and healthy disagreement.

Some examples:

“I’m concerned that we’ll lose x if we don’t move quickly. But you need to be happy with the plan. So, we’ll go with whatever you decide”.

“I’ve spoken to A and B, and they recommend C. But nothing is set in stone. If you have other ideas, we can consider them and choose what you’re comfortable with”.

“These are the options for x. What do you think?”

“Could we please reconsider this? There’s a serious issue with y”.

“Unfortunately, we can’t afford x on our budget. Other options are welcome”.

“I suggest we split into groups to act quickly. A and B can handle x and update the group, while C and D will be tasked with y and provide feedback. How does that sound? Do you prefer another arrangement?”

While it might seem unproductive to defer to others, what I discovered during the planning stage was interesting. When you ask your family for recommendations, they’re more willing to consider your views because they know you prioritise their wishes.

Moreover, you dispel fiction when you complement your suggestions with a soft tone, polite manner (using ‘please’, ‘sorry’, etc.), and open nonverbal cues (nodding, eye contact, open palms/gestures, etc.). While planning a funeral, you must ensure family members feel heard and their input valued.

Avoid cutting remarks, loud tones or sarcastic comments in all your communication. Excuse yourself if a situation becomes too emotionally charged during the funeral-planning process. Retreat to a corner, cry if you must, pull yourself together, and rejoin the discussion, all of which I needed to do in one late-evening scenario.

Communicate with tact and grace to build bridges — not erect walls.


I’ve known for over two decades that effective communication gets results in corporateville. But it also works brilliantly in personal relationships, even during grief.

By being mindful of how you communicate with family members and well-wishers during the difficult period that follows the death of a loved one, you empower others to help you. Despite your pain, you also succeed in bringing people together and forging a stronger bond that will become invaluable when the real grieving begins, after all funeral activities.

Use your emotionally intelligent communication to unite the people who matter the most.

Over to you:

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N.B: First is courtesy of Eliza via Pixabay. Second image is courtesy of Alexa via Pixabay. Third image is courtesy of courtesy Pete Linforth via Pixabay.

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