Not to sound socially inept, but how does one know what to say and not say at a funeral or in a condolence letter? I hear people uttering silly comments such as, “She is in a better place,” or “He is with God now.” What exactly is the funeral etiquette for what should be said and not said?
–E.F., Portland, OR
There are words and phrases that are spoken because they are appropriate, and other cliches that should not be said at a funeral or in a condolence letter. It is safest to keep personal feelings to yourself.
No matter how religious you are, the survivor — the spouse, partner, child, parent, colleague or friend — may be far too angry to be feeling good about listening to cliches — religious or otherwise — that they don’t find comforting.
Hold your tongue, cliches are not always consoling and can actually annoy the survivor. Everyone deals with the death of a loved one in their own way and in their own time. You don’t really know how bad they’re hurting, because you are not the survivor.
Don’t say: He is in a better place now, God had a plan for her, Because you’re still young you’ll find another husband, She is in God’s hands now, Oh, dear, you poor thing, I know what you’re going through, God has his plan, I know how you’re feeling right now, It will get better, My uncle died of the same thing.
People never truly understand the death of a loved one until it happens to them.
Nor would you say months later, I would have called you sooner but I didn’t want to be intrusive (or I thought you would be too busy).
Instead, offer to pay for the bartender at the reception or help with the acknowledgements for the flowers.
More importantly, don’t make a gesture you do not follow up on, such as saying, “Let’s have lunch next week and go to a movie, I’ll call you.” It would be better not to suggest a plan, rather than make one and not follow through with it. She may be anticipating the distraction after family and friends have gone back to their routines leaving her alone with sad thoughts.
Nor would you ask, What can I do for you? Do something even if it is baking a coffee cake, walking her dog, mowing the lawn, or paying a funeral expense.
Don’t ask personal questions: What happened to your son? When are you going to sell your house? How are you? Let me know if I can help? Do you want me to rid of some of her personal things so you’re not reminded of him?
Be helpful by not asking, How can I help? Try taking the family prepared food, helping with the acknowledgements, and making sure the widowed isn’t alone too much. There are all sorts of ways to pitch in and help. Take her out for a walk or go for a swim. Play golf with him. The widowed are not physically incapacitated and could be craving companionship after the brouhaha of the funeral.
Eventually the survivor will find a new normal at their own pace.
Often weeks or months after the death of a loved one is when your friendship is needed the most.
About condolence cards and letters. The same mindfulness applies. Don’t start every sentence with the pronoun I and talk about yourself. The person is too wrapped up in their own grief to relate to how you felt when your loved one died from same illness.
And don’t ever write, I know what you’re going through. Because you don’t. Nobody does. Only the survivor knows what they feel.
Instead, write, You and your children (family) are in our thoughts and we want you all to come for dinner on Friday, July 12th at seven o’clock. I’ll call you to confirm.
You can certainly express your sorrow and sympathy by writing (or saying), I am deeply sorry for your loss, or, You have my deepest sympathy.
Most importantly, be a good listener. It takes patience to listen to a recently widowed person’s reminiscences. Show interest by encouraging him to share stories about the deceased’s triumphs, missteps, accomplishments, and most of all her sense of humor. Start by reminding him of an anecdote of your own about the deceased.
Remember something funny or clever the deceased said or did to leave the mourner with another memory, especially a good one, to cherish.
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