I have threatened for several years to write a book on funeral and grief support etiquette. It’s title would be … you guessed it, “What Not to Say at a Funeral.” So many of us want to support our bereaved loved ones in their grief, but don’t know what to say. And often times our need to ease our own pain has us offering confusing and insensitive clichés.
I have found that one of the more common challenges the bereaved face in our culture today is insensitive comments. We all have offered them at one time or another when we don’t know what else to say in the face of sadness and loss. Things like, “Aren’t you lucky. Now you have an angel in heaven,” or “Don’t be sad. He’s in a better place,” are comments all said with the best of intentions, but insensitive nonetheless.
I have learned from both men and women in mourning that many times their initial response to these comments is shock followed by hurt or anger. However, social etiquette stymies the truth of their reply.
Kathy was confused by this comment made by an acquaintance at her husband’s funeral. “I know just how you feel, I just lost my dog.” The well-wisher was simply trying to relate her loss in an attempt to comfort Kathy.
However, shock and later anger swept over Kathy as she proclaimed, “I was so taken aback at what she said. I had no response! How dare she think that the loss of a dog is the same as a husband. Did she share her life, her children, her career and finances with her dog?”
As the bereaved we must first understand that unless our well-wishers have experienced a loss of their own, they will probably not even know that some of the things they offer are hurtful. And secondly, we must be willing to teach those who wish to support us about our needs.
Margaret gently reminds her friend, who continues to tell her that she must get over her grief following her husband’s death, that it’s not that easy. In this way, she is teaching her friend about the process she continues to navigate.
I can only imagine the comments I’ve made to friends or family members in the past who have lost a loved one — before I endured the grief of my own loss. So, if these phrases ring a bell, don’t feel too guilty. Our intention was to comfort and sympathize. And it is never easy to bear witness to another’s pain.
But awareness is the first step in companioning a loved one who mourns. Step out of your own discomfort and become aware of what the mourner needs.
Here are a few insights and suggestions that might assist when preparing to attend a visitation or funeral of a friend or family member:
• Understand that each individual will have a unique response to their loss and will grieve in his or her own way. Don’t translate your expectation of how to grieve on another.
• Compassion is defined as sorrow for the sufferings or trouble of another. Simply expressing your sorrow is enough. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” is a perfect example of simplicity. Sometimes too many words lead to confusion.
• Telling our story of loss is an important element in the grieving process. Ask a question to encourage the bereaved to tell a bit of their story. For instance, ask, “Were you able to be with him when he died?” Then just listen. Remember that the funeral is about the deceased’s family members. Try not to impose too much of your own story in any conversation with them.
• Sympathize with the mourner in their pain and sadness, rather than trying to steer them away from it. Try using phrases like, “This must be so painful for you.” or “I can’t imagine how difficult this is for you.” Their pain cannot be “fixed,” but it can be comforted.
• Respect the mourner’s right to just be still. Sit with them in silence. Your presence may just be the healing balm they need.
Kay Cozad is a certified grief educator and news editor of Today’s Catholic newspaper. She is the author of “Prayer Book for Widows,” Our Sunday Visitor, 2004. She can be reached at
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