What to Say at a Funeral or in a Card

Against medical advice, I attended my friend’s memorial service. Most of it.

I left the sanctuary during every hymn — had to — and watched the video tribute through the window. My concussion-injured head (a long, unrelated story) can’t yet tolerate many sounds, including, apparently, music.

Even though my doctor ordered me to “strictly limit all social interaction” while recovering, I needed to attend. It felt important to show up in support of my friend’s family.

Despite my concussion, I also wanted to gather with others who’ll miss my friend, but my desire was secondary to offering his widow, son, and other family members the tangible presence of one more person who cares about their loss.

Having said that, I don’t recommend foregoing doctors’ orders for a funeral service. If you’re possibly contagious, stay away — for now — because the last thing someone grieving needs is additional trauma from already grief-stressed immune systems.

But if you’re physically sound and geographically near enough, show up. If you live too far away or you’re too incapacitated to attend the funeral, send messages of support.

What should you say at a funeral? What should you say in a message if you can’t attend the memorial service?

Keep condolences short and simple. “I’m sorry” can be enough. Acknowledge your awareness of the huge loss your friends now face. Let them know you are thinking of them and, if appropriate to your beliefs and theirs, praying for them.

Share positive memories of the dead loved one. If the circumstances surrounding the memorial don’t seem appropriate, write such anecdotes and send them later.

Offer specific assistance. Even the most sincerely offered “Let me know if I can help” seldom helps someone overcome by the raw, overwhelming nature of grief. When my husband died, I realized people who said this meant it, but I had no idea what I needed. Weeks later, when I began to understand what would have been helpful, I couldn’t bring myself to follow up with them. On the other hand, I could say yes (or no) to targeted offers like “Please let me bring your family dinner Wednesday” or “May I take the kids to the park tomorrow afternoon?” or “I’d like to help you with laundry or dishes or other chores of your choosing around the house Saturday morning if that time works for you.”

Avoid preachy platitudes like “he’s in a better place” or “God must have needed her” or “it was their time to go” or “heaven’s a happier place now with them there.” It’s never wise to use clichéd words as if you’re trying to make anyone else’s losses seem OK.

Avoid saying “at least.” In almost every case, this phrase minimizes rather than validating the breadth and depth of grief.

It’s absolutely all right for the mourners themselves to use these phrases — or any other words they choose — as expressions of how they feel. Even if you disagree with a mourner’s assertion regarding their loved one’s status in the afterlife, showing up in support of grieving friends is not about you, so don’t argue. At all.

Finally, it’s never too late to reach out because there is no “finally” in supporting friends who mourn. Death’s impact on surviving loved ones does not end with the funeral or even after a year or two. While you’ve got the funeral program or obituary notice in hand, make a few notes in your calendar — the person’s birth and death dates, their wedding or other anniversaries, children’s birthdays, etc. — and reach out to your grieving friends in advance of those dates. Many bereaved individuals silently struggle in the days leading up to such commemorations.

The most intense shock of new, raw grief often erodes as the most upfront support from friends and neighbors also wanes. Reaching out to your grieving friends in the months (and years) after the funeral can offer much needed support and encouragement.

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