What to Say and Do at a Funeral
A funeral can be an unexpected and emotionally charged event. In many cases, we attend to show our support and respect for both the family and the deceased. However, even when we have the absolute best of intentions, it can be difficult and sometimes awkward to know what we should and should not do or say during the event. For most people the goal is to offer help, even if in a small way, and never to make things any harder for those who are grieving the loss of their loved one.
In this article, we are going to try and help you navigate the funeral process and give a quick overview of what you should and should not say during this time.
Acknowledging the Death of a Loved One
One of the realities surrounding our discomfort during the funeral and burial process is that we simply do not know what to say. It’s a time when “I’m sorry,” feels weak and words as a whole seem inadequate in terms of the emotions people are struggling with. But the reality is that even though death can be an extremely uncomfortable topic to approach, the absolute worst thing we can do is ignore the issue and pretend as if nothing has happened. Not only is this poor etiquette, but it also makes the individual feel as if they don’t matter and as if this life event they are facing is insignificant to you. Therefore, when it comes to family, friends or even colleagues, be willing to have the conversation even if it is uncomfortable.
Worry about finding the right words? You are not alone!
Here is the important thing. It doesn’t matter if you are sending a card, ordering flowers, talking on the phone or even having a face to face conversation. The key is to let the family know you are thinking about them and that you share their sorrow during this difficult time.
Not sure what to put on the card? No worries! We have you covered. Here is a simple example of what you might say to share your condolences in an appropriate manner.
We were so sorry to learn about your loss. Please know that our thoughts are with you during this difficult time.
This may seem fairly straightforward, but that is often the most effective when someone is grieving and they will remember the gesture long after they forget the words.
Upon Hearing the News
The most important thing is to listen. Talk as little as possible as you offer your friend, loved one or even co-worker your full attention. Every person is different. Some may need to just talk while others simply want to sit and process through the event. No matter what they choose, just be with them and try to support their needs.
Also, don’t shy away from speaking about the deceased. Refer to them by name and acknowledge their life. Often times it is difficult for those who have lost a loved one to wrap their minds around moving forward without a key piece of their life. Pretending that the person did not exist in the first place just serves to make things even harder.
To show your support of the family, it is always appropriate to either send flowers or make a donation in the name of the deceased. Many times the family will choose a charity or organization that held meaning for their loved one, making it easy for you to know exactly where to send your donation.
There are a few things that should be avoided as you visit or interact with those who have recently lost a loved one. While this list is not all-inclusive, it does provide a strong starting point to keep in mind.
- Do not try to take control of the situation. Take your cues from the family and strive to serve them in their time of need.
- Do not set a timeline for grief. Each person experiences the loss of a loved one in an individual manner. Allow them time and space to heal.
- Do not pressure the family to make changes or let go of items that belonged to the deceased. Again, this is a very personal process that each person will work through at their own speed.
Offering Your Condolences
Many times the best way to offer your condolences is in person. However, if that is simply not possible due to distance or timing, then it is appropriate to either call the family or send your condolences in the form of either a card or flowers.
However, it is important to note that when you reach out, the call may go straight to some type of voice mailbox, or it may be answered by someone other than the family. This is perfectly normal. Simply leave your message. Often it is simply too hard for family members to face talking to everyone who reaches out, but even if you don’t speak to them directly, know that your message will be both received and appreciated.
When calling, take care to be brief. This is not the time to plan for or expect a long and drawn out conversation. Often times the family will receive a large volume of calls during this time and will only spend a short amount of time actually speaking to each person. Further, take care to keep the conversation focused on the deceased and the family. This is not the time to talk about yourself or to even ask questions about anything unrelated to the current situation.
Also, do not try to relate through sharing your own recent experiences. You may have recently lost a loved one or even a dearly loved pet, but this is not the time for your friend to share in your pain. Again, keep the focus on them and on how you can assist them. They will greatly appreciate it and there will be a time in the future for sharing your pain.
So, take the time to listen. Allow them space to vent, cry, grieve or simply get their emotions out in the way that works best for them. Let them talk or just support them silently. The goal is just to provide what they need with care and consideration.
Finally, do not ask about the details or circumstances of the death. This is very insensitive, and most people simply do not want to talk about it. If they are moved to share about what happened, they will do so on their own.
Many times, the hardest part for the family to face comes after the funeral. Before the services they are surrounded by people wanting to help in any way possible. However, after the services, this stream of help, food, and support tends to fade. Life goes back to “normal” and the family struggles with their new reality. A wonderful way to offer help, support and love is to regularly stay in contact with the family long after the funeral has passed. This can help them know that you still care and are still willing and able to help them. And it can mean the world when they feel like the world has forgotten them.
Sending Written Condolences
There are many ways to send written condolences. In this section, we will cover the best and the worst giving you an idea of what to choose and what to steer clear of.
The first option is a pre-printed sympathy card such as what you would find at the store. These cards are an automatic choice for many people and are very acceptable. However, we do recommend taking the time to add a handwritten message inside the card. It takes only a few moments and it means so much to the person who receives it.
Make your message personal to the reader and the situation. Do not shy away from using the name of the deceased or sharing a fond memory. It is okay to find joy in a life well lived. While the family may not read all of these messages immediately, they often become treasured memories that they will look back on for years to come.
Further, if you are unable to attend the services in person, express your regrets in writing. Let them know that you wish you could make it and that you still would like to support them however possible.
If the deceased was Catholic a very special type of acknowledgment can be found in the form of a Mass condolence card. This is a specific type of card that lets the family know that a specific Mass will be said in memory of their loved one. This is a tradition that holds great meaning to many Catholic families and can be a lovely tribute to the deceased.
One key don’t in this area is electronic communication. Please do not send your condolences via email or text. This does not show that you took the time to express true sympathy, only that you choose the quickest and most convenient manner for you.
Bring Food for the Family
In times of stress having a hot, prepared meal can be a huge relief. In many cases families will go without eating simply because no one feels like cooking food. However, when sending food it is always a good idea to take a few extra moments to ensure you are providing something that the family enjoys and is within any dietary restrictions they might have.
Tips for Bringing Food:
- Call ahead or refer to any meal train notes to see if the family has food allergies or even favorite meals. Having a well-loved meal prepared in a stressful time can be a huge gesture.
- Always deliver food in disposable containers. Chances are good that the family will be receiving food from many different people. Trying to keep track of who gets what dishes is added stress that they do not need.
- Consider adding a pre-frozen freezer meal to what you bring. This can help after the funeral when life is still stressful, but people have stopped offering help. A freezer meal typically only needs to be heated up and the family will be gifted with an additional hot dinner.
- Get a head count on the number of people in the house so you bring enough food. The family may be hosting out of town guests for the funeral and you want to make sure they are accounted for as well.
- A dessert is always a nice touch. Especially if there are kids in the house. Kids typically don’t understand grief and struggle with the whole process of the funeral and everything that surrounds it. When someone takes the time to focus on them and offer a moment that seems normal, it can help reduce stress and make the entire event a little more bearable.
Keeping in Touch
As we talked about earlier, the days, weeks and months after the funeral are often the most difficult for the family. So be sure to keep in touch and pay attention to how your friends or family is faring in the long run.
Here are a few key times to reach out or ways to stay involved:
- Call every few weeks to show you still care.
- Make a note to reach out on birthdays or on anniversaries of the death to show their loved one has not been forgotten.
- Call with offers of food, companionship or simply to clean their house.
- Send cards and fun notes regularly to brighten their day.
- Include them in social functions and perhaps look for special events that would also serve to honor their loved one.
Keep in mind that this is not a complete list, and it is always important to pay attention to the social cues around you as each culture may have different norms that you are not aware of. Many long-held traditions are closely tied to specific religions or ethics groups. Understanding these traditions, or even just being aware of them, comes from asking the right questions or by simply observing those around you during the event.