What to Say to the Bereaved at a Funeral

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There’s a lot to think about when you’re getting ready to attend a funeral: what to wear, what kind of flowers to send, whether or not you should bring your children. But for some people, the hardest thing is knowing what to say once you’re there.

Whether you’re waiting in a receiving line or saying goodbye before you leave, there’s usually a moment at any funeral when you find yourself face-to-face with the immediate family of the deceased. While some people are naturally adept at navigating these kinds of situations, others may feel nervous and uncomfortable, or paralyzed by their fear of saying the wrong thing. Here are a few tips to remember:

Keep it simple

First of all, take a deep breath: Experts stress that you don’t need to have a long, emotional speech prepared for this moment. In fact, you can’t go wrong by keeping your message simple, says Ben Michaelis, PhD, a clinical psychologist and author of Your Next Big Thing. “‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ or ‘My thoughts are with you,’ are appropriate,” he says.

Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert and founder of the Swann School of Protocol in Carlsbad, California, agrees that brevity is best, especially if you’re in a receiving line with many other people around you. “Your focus should just be to share with them that your thoughts and heart are with them,” she says.

Share a story

If a short memory or story comes to mind about the person who died, feel free to share it, says Jacqueline Whitmore, an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach. “If you have something special you remember about the person, the family might appreciate that,” she says. (Again, keep it brief, especially if other people are waiting for their turn to speak to the family.)

Say the loved one’s name

When discussing the deceased person, don’t be afraid to use their name in conversation. Ellen McBrayer, a funeral director at Jones-Wynn Funeral Homes and Crematory in Villa Rica, Georgia, tells us that funeralgoers are sometimes hesitant to speak the name of the person who died for fear of triggering tears. “But I often hear families say that they miss hearing their loved one’s name,” says McBrayer, a funeral director at Jones-Wynn Funeral Homes and Crematory in Villa Rica, Georgia. “I absolutely recommend saying, ‘I will miss so-and-so very much,’ and call their loved one by their name.”

Go for a hug

If you’re finding yourself tongue-tied, remember that the most powerful signs of support can be nonverbal. McBrayer’s favorite quote about grief is by the author Doug Manning, who coined the term “The Three H’s” to help someone who is grieving: Hush, hang around, and hug.

“Basically, if you don’t know what to say, be there, hug someone—you don’t really need to say anything—just express to them that I can’t imagine what you’re going through but I’m here for you if you need me,” says McBrayer.

Don’t make it about you

Knowing what not to say at a funeral can be a little trickier. Obviously, you shouldn’t say anything that’s remotely disrespectful about the person who died. Nor should you tell the bereaved about someone you personally lost, or offer suggestions for how they should cope with their grief. (Related: 6 Things You Should Never Say to Someone Who’s Grieving)

“Do not explain to the person how you went through this before so you know, or say anything like, ‘They’re in a better place now’,” says Swann. “For a family that’s grieving, at that time, that better place is probably right there with them.”

You also should be mindful not to project your own emotions on the person who’s mourning. “A lot of times, people are naturally drawn to say what they are thinking or what they would be the most afraid of,” says McBrayer. For example, her own father died when she was in college, and she still remembers the person who said to her, “I can’t imagine what it will be like when you get married without him, or when you hold your first child without him.”

This person’s words were likely meant to be empathetic, not cruel, but they triggered feelings McBrayer hadn’t yet processed. “He outlined my entire future without my dad,” she recalls. “And I had not yet thought of those things.”

Follow their lead

Talking about anything else is generally frowned upon—in other words, now is not the time to mention the score of last night’s game or the latest contestant to get kicked off The Bachelor, even if these are topics you’d usually discuss with that person. That said, “some people in mourning will want to be distracted and talk about other things,” Michaelis notes. Follow their lead, but don’t bring up other subjects yourself.

Don’t limit yourself to the funeral

If for some reason you don’t speak to the family during the service, such as if it’s too crowded or you could only stay for a short amount of time, it’s perfectly fine to leave without having a face-to-face conversation. “If you’re not able to greet the family personally, don’t feel bad—it’s not a requirement,” says Swann.

One alternative: If the funeral has a register book, it’s a nice gesture to write a note there if you leave without seeing the family, says McBrayer. “In my experience, families often go back to that book that people sign by the door,” she says. “A personal note there goes a very long way.” (Related: How to Write a Condolence Note)

You might also consider sending flowers, a sympathy card, or just calling them at a later point after the funeral to let them know you’re thinking of them. “You can say, ‘I was there, I wasn’t able to hug you, but I just wanted to let you know I was there,’” suggests McBrayer. “Even if it’s a text, call, or voicemail, it’s important. That’s what [funeral] visitation is about: for people to show their love and respect during a very difficult time.”

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