What to Say When... At a Funeral

You arrive to pay your respects. But it's what you say that will leave the lasting impression

You’ve signed the guest book. You’ve paid your respects to the dearly departed. Now you have to approach the family and offer your condolences. What do you say?

As little as possible, says Deborah E. Bowen, LCSW, grief therapist and author of A Good Friend for Bad Times: Helping Others Through Grief.

“When people are uncomfortable they start rambling, and they say the most inane things,” says Bowen. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, he’s better off. He’s gone to heaven.’ And the family might think, ‘How do you know?’ The more you start to ramble, the more likely you are to put your foot in your mouth. So, really, less is better. It is always okay just to say, ‘I am sorry for your loss.’”

Here are some other tips on what to say -- and what never to say -- from Bowen and people who have mourned the loss of a loved one.

Dress and act appropriately. How you act can be just as important as what you say. People aren’t expected to wear all black at a funeral, but you should dress conservatively, says Bowen. Sit in the back or off to the side if you are not in the immediate family. Speak in hushed tones and don’t talk at all once the service has started. And even if you don’t share the deceased’s religion, show respect for it by standing when others stand, sitting when they sit, and being respectful of prayers.

Don’t talk about yourself. Statements such as, “I know how you feel,” or sharing a story of someone you know who died in a similar way are not helpful. “It’s not about you right now; it’s about the person in mourning,” says Carole Brody Fleet, who was widowed 11 years ago at age 40 and is the author of Widows Wear Stilettos. “As soon as you say, ‘I know how you feel,’ you have just quietly shifted the focus on to you. Keep the focus where it belongs.”

Don’t try for a positive spin. Comments such as, “He’s in a better place,” “He’s not suffering anymore,” or “He looks like he’s at peace” can be very hurtful to someone who desperately wishes the death hadn't happened at all.

Offer to be available when they need you. “People said, ‘Let me spend the day with you’ and ‘Feel free to call me in the middle of the night,’” says Judy Ford, who has been widowed twice. “A loving presence helped me more than words ever could.”

Keep it short. Don’t share your memories of the deceased or ask questions about what happened. “When you’re in that initial stage of shock, your attention span is non-existent,” says Bowen. “You might want to tell a long-winded story about some sailing trip you went on, and the person you are talking to is grieving, so they lost you five sentences ago.”

Send a card. “An old-fashioned card in the mail shows you care,” says Bowen. When writing the card, a simple, “thinking about you” is enough. Other thoughtful sentiments include “I know that you two were very close and I’m sorry for your loss. If there’s anything I can do let me know.” Say that you’ll call in a couple of days to check up on your loved one, and then make sure you do so, Bowen says.

And if you can't attend the funeral, you should still recognize the departed when you next see the bereaved. “Some people never acknowledged my husband’s death, and I learned later it was because they didn’t know what to say,” says Mary Zemites of Chandler, Ariz. “Nothing you can say can make the pain go away, but the death needs to be acknowledged and not doing so trivializes the death and its impact. Just to say, ‘I heard about Greg’s death and I’m sorry’ was enough.”

Lastly, remember that the grieving lasts long after the funeral ends. “A true friend is going to need you much more four months from now than they do today,” says Bowen.

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