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.

My Easter Admission on Gratitude, Grief, and Ambivalence — and How Faith Factors in Consoling Friends

No matter your religious beliefs or cultural point of view, I’ve always wanted this website to offer you ways to support your grieving friends. Some posts speak to specific topics of what to say (or not to say) when someone you know has suffered a loss. Others offer general insight into what is normal for one who is grieving. This one reaches into each of those areas.

First, I’d like to share this Easter- and grief-related post, Easter Admission: Gratitude, Grief, and Ambivalence, which I wrote for the Segullah literary blog.

For those not of my faith, please understand I’m not trying to impose my beliefs. Rather, I’m illustrating how — even for those with clear convictions — grieving can (and does) influence mourners long after the funeral, so long, in fact, that your friends might not seem like they “still” mourn. (More than seven years widowed, I no longer cry every day as I once did, but that doesn’t mean I don’t cry from time to time, even though my life has become full and fulfilling again.)                                                            EasterSunriseForSegullahByTeresaTLBruce-min

Grieving is a complicated business. For some, faith simplifies the process — but not always.

In the earliest days (and by days I mean weeks, months, and even years) after my husband died, my faith offered me an anchor to hold when the ground beneath my feet turned to unpredictable tidal waves. In the long nights when I could no longer sleep, I often turned to scripture for comfort, guidance, and connection as I read of others’ great trials and how well they did (or didn’t) cope as they relied on God for deliverance or endurance. It helped me.

But it seldom helped when others told me how or why or that my faith (or theirs) should, could, or would help me.

At first, I didn’t understand why I bristled at others’ attempts to console me by their declarations of faith and doctrine. After all, I’d lived my whole life by relying on prayer and study and devotion. Why, now that I leaned upon it even more, did I resent others’ telling me to do so? In time, I figured out a few reasons.

Why should you think twice before urging mourners to have more faith or speak to them in faith-based clichés?

  • I resented the implied message that if my faith were strong enough, my grief wouldn’t show up in ways that made those around me uncomfortable.
  • If I believed fully, their attempted consolations implied, I wouldn’t need to grieve. I’d “get over it” sooner. (Note: Never say or imply one who has lost a loved one should “already” get over it.
  • Those already feeling fragile in their faith may take your words as condemnation rather than support.
  • Never, ever tell a grieving child (or parent, or anyone, for that matter) that God needed the deceased loved one more than they did.
    • Do you really think the Almighty “needed” that individual more than the survivors needed their loved one?
    • Do you really have the authority to speak for God?
  • Never tell mourners that God — or the deceased — wouldn’t want them to be sad.
    • Grief is a natural, even healthy, response to losing ones we love.
    • Do you think the Almighty — or the one who died — would want loved ones kicking up their heels and saying, “Hooray!” about the death? (And if so, who authorized you as the spokesperson?)
    • Many Old Testament stories depict prophets and others openly mourning their own and others’ losses; one of the New Testament’s most poignant verses states simply, “Jesus wept.”
  • Never say, “She’s in a better place,” implying that all’s well because the loved one is now in heaven.
    • Even if the mourners believe this, it’s up to them to state it.
    • Sometimes grief and families’ lives behind closed doors is complicated. You might think the deceased was a saint, but the grieving family members might feel differently about their loved one’s eternal destination.

When and how is it appropriate to share faith-related comfort with mourners?

  • When they ask for it.
  • During discussions the bereaved initiate about faith and mourning.
  • Limit your professions to what gives you comfort. For instance:
    • RIGHT WAY: When my mother died, I found peace in reading from her Bible and studying the verses she’d outlined.
    • WRONG WAY: You should study your mom’s Bible and see what she marked in it.
    • RIGHT WAY: Sometimes, when I’m grieving, singing this hymn helps me feel better.
    • WRONG WAY: You should sing this hymn if you’re feeling sad. Or, I’m going to sing you this hymn right now to make you feel better too.

What’s most important to remember when comforting grieving friends?

Be there. Listen. Show up. Remember. Ask to hear stories about the one who died — using their name. Express your awareness of their loss.

Facing Death in the Family

Today was my uncle’s funeral.

I’ve posted seldom since late October, when hospice staff told my aunt to make sure all the family visited within two to three weeks. They didn’t expect my uncle to be with us longer.

When I got the call, my aunt’s soft voice delivered that sentence in a three-fisted punch. The triple blows landed in a tight triangle, right where years before I’d felt grief’s wrecking ball hit mid-gut on my insides. My breath whooshed out as I tried not to cry into the phone:

My uncle.

My aunt.

My cousins.

I didn’t want it to be true. Denial, of course. Didn’t want to think of a world without him here. Selfish, raw, pre-grieving — thinking all about me missing my hilarious, compassionate, faithful uncle. About my kids missing their great-uncle and my dad missing his half-century brother-in-law.

Didn’t want my aunt forced to wear the title Widow. Yes, capitalized. Boldfaced. Italicized. Quadruple-underlined. 800-point font. Thinking all about her — knowing how I’d ached while mourning my husband after 24 years together and not wanting her to feel that. Grieving for what I knew she’d face. Yet knowing I had no idea how she’d feel after more than twice that time with my uncle.

Didn’t want my cousins bereft of their dad. Remembering  how I felt losing — missing — my mom and thinking about my cousins, picturing their pain at losing their dad. Seeing again my children’s grief after their dad died and not wanting that raw ache for my cousins and their kids and grandkids.

All this within seconds of hearing my aunt’s words.

My uncle surprised us all.

Within that hospice-projected two to three weeks, my aunt and uncle’s kids, grandkids, and great-grandchildren all visited with him. Other family members and close friends came too. They shared stories, memories, and love. Said whatever needed saying. Sweet visits, prompted by heartbreaking need.

Beloved uncle, glasses, sour candy, teasing, TealAshes.com

My funny uncle with a piece of candy he didn’t expect to be so sour. (Family photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

My uncle’s eyes still twinkled as he teased, and they softened as he expressed love and appreciation. He and his family enjoyed one another through post-prediction milestones: Halloween, his daughter’s birthday, Thanksgiving, his 57th wedding anniversary, and Christmas Day.

Meanwhile, I all but stopped writing. 

How could I post new material about what to say when someone dies while my dear uncle lay slowly dying? Time and again, my grief over his too imminent passing rebooted feelings I experienced while caring for his sister — my mom — as she neared the end of her life more than 20 years ago. In my mind, I was back in Mom’s bedroom, looking on as my uncle — this uncle — arrived in time to tell her goodbye.

But it wasn’t about my feelings. In the days since my uncle’s death, and on this day of his funeral, and in the days, weeks, months, and years to come, it’s about my aunt, my cousins, and their kids. Yes, I’m grieving my uncle’s terminal illness and passing. But my grief is also for them — my uncle’s immediate family. Theirs is the primary, innermost loss.*

Friends and our church family have been thoughtful in their support of offered meals and visits. For now, the family has requested privacy in grief, declining such offers with gratitude for their kind intentions.

In every loss I’ve suffered, the day of the funeral brought a turning point — in some ways, a relief of sorts, unwelcome though it was. Sometimes, the service also, sadly, began the waning of public awareness and outreach. Well-meaning folks assume memorial gatherings bring so-called closure to mourners.

But no. Closure implies an ability to shut the door on grief and walk away. In reality, mourning loved ones lasts much, much longer — which is why it’s so important to reach out a month, two months, six months, a year, and further after someone you know loses a loved one.

In time, we learn to walk with our grief and its connection to the one we (still) love.

In the meantime (and beyond), please keep reaching out.

___

*See  Grief — It’s All in the Family for more about how relatives might experience grief differently.

Mourning in the Holidays — How to Help Grieving Friends

What do you say to someone who’s mourning during the holidays? If your friends’ loss is recent, wishing them “happy holidays” — or happy anything from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — might come across as if you don’t realize (or care about) the permanence of their grief. On the other hand, saying nothing at all speaks a louder message of indifference than shouted words.

grief, help friend, holiday, mourn, candle, TealAshes.com, smoke, wisp, teal,

Like the scent of candles, grief remains in the air of the holidays even amid the beauty and joys of the season (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com).

Saying something is better than saying nothing. Here are ways to tell your friends you’re thinking of them and aware of their grief during the holidays:

  • “I’m thinking of you. I know this is your first Thanksgiving without [say the name of the person who died].”
  • “I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts this second Hanukkah after [say the name]’s death. I realize you’re still adjusting to [his/her] absence.”
  • “Will you join us for Christmas Eve services? We realize you might not want to sit alone.”
  • “I’ve brought you this token as a symbol of [one of the seven principles] to share with you this first week of Kwanzaa without [say the name].”
  • “I know this New Year’s Eve will be hard without [say the name of the deceased] here with you.”
  • “Will you please join me for this holiday?”
  • “May I come visit with you during this holiday?”
  • “I’d love to hear stories about [say the name of the lost loved one].”

Did it seem odd that I repeated the admonition to say the name of the deceased? Most mourners need to process their losses by talking of their departed loved ones. Too often, well-meaning friends think they’ll “make” their friends sad if they mention the names of the ones being mourned. The reality is they’re already sad and would rather have others acknowledge their loss instead of pretending it didn’t happen. Remember, grief is a natural outgrowth of love.

Well-thought words can soothe wounded hearts. (Notice I said “soothe” and not “heal”? You can’t “fix” anyone’s grief, but you can offer consoling support that doesn’t deepen pain.) When talking about the holidays with the newly bereaved, be thoughtful and deliberate in your choices of words:

  • Plan to commemorate instead of celebrate.
  • Invite grieving friends to a gathering rather than a party.
  • Acknowledge awareness of your friends’ ongoing grief rather than assuming they should already feel or do anything expected by others.
  • Avoid “at least” statements, which diminish the importance and impact of mourners’ losses.

There’s no good time of year to grieve, but the holidays can be especially difficult. Whether death takes place in the middle of the busiest holidays or in the least-scheduled month of a family (or corporate) calendar, it’s going to hurt. And it’s going to hurt not just now, when the loss is new, but also in the weeks and months and years to come. (Yes, I said years.)

Holiday traditions and expectations sometimes fan the embers of grief back into flames. You can’t restore what grief’s flames damage, but you can offer the balm of kindness and understanding as your mourning friends’ adapt to their altered lives.

What to Say to a Widow or Widower

When you learn a friend or co-worker is newly widowed, what do you say? What can you do?

Think first. 

Listen to widowed friends. TealAshes.com, Teresa TL Bruce

When you learn a friend or co-worker is widowed, reach out — and listen. (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

  • Are you rushing to say the first (clichéd) thing that pops into your mind?
    • Most trite sayings sting rather than soothe, but sincerity reaches hearts.
    • Avoid phrases like “in a better place” and “better off” in your attempts at consolation.
  • How will your words sound to the person grieving their life partner?
    • Are you offering validation of their pain and showing you recognize the unique nature of their loss? Great. Proceed.
    • Or are you rushing to minimize the loss in the misplaced hope of making the mourner feel better? Think again.
    • Avoid saying “at least” about anything related to the death or what preceded it.
  • Are you adding to or draining from the strength of the bereaved?
    • Avoid asking, “How are you?” — because when acutely grieving, they’re not doing well enough to know how to answer — unless you’re tying the question to a solution for your friend (“How are you getting your family from the airport? May I pick them up for you?”).
    • Avoid asking, “What do you need?” or “What can I do for you?” Most mourners are too overwhelmed by grief to know.
  • Neither blame nor shame the bereaved or the deceased.
    • This isn’t the time to lecture suicide survivors about mental health issues.
    • This is not the time to say the person who died should have known better than to smoke or to drink and drive or to cross the street or to neglect regular checkups or to eat as they did …
    • This is not the time to blame the now dead firefighter, policeman, or military service person for choosing that profession.
  • Remember, this isn’t about you. It’s about reaching out in support of your friend, co-worker, or relative who’s mourning.
    • It’s helpful to remember your own losses and how they made you feel, but never compare your loss to the bereaved unless you’re doing so in a way that validates theirs.
      • I found it comforting when older widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it would be like to still be raising children as a widow. It was hard enough with mine already grown. Bless you.”
      • And it felt validating when younger widows said things like “I can’t imagine what it must feel like to be widowed after 24 years. It was hard enough for me after our 12 years together. I’m so sorry.”

Speak up next.

  • “I’m sorry.”
  • “I can’t imagine what you’re going through, but I’m here for you.” (Follow this up by being there.)
  • “I want to help, but I don’t know how, so may I come sit with you in the meantime?”
  • “May I do this [specific task] for you?”
  • “I will miss him [or her] too, though I know you’re hurting much more.”
  • “I wish you had more time with [speak the name of the deceased].”
  • “I’d love to hear more about [speak the name of the deceased] when you feel like talking.”
  • “I’m sorry.” (Yes, I repeated this, and it’s okay for you to repeat it too.)

And act.

  • Do (or send) practical help: pull weeds, shovel snow, bring food, pick up dry cleaning, tend children, make phone calls, wash dishes or laundry (BUT do NOT touch items belonging to or last used by the deceased without first getting explicit permission from the mourning, widowed partner) …
  • Follow up. If you promised to check in next week, do it. If you offered to have lunch together, set it up and don’t back out. If you mentioned a book you found helpful when you were grieving a similar loss, and if your mourning, widowed friend seemed interested, bring a copy to him or her.
  • Set reminders. Offer support throughout the weeks and months following the death. Note significant dates in your calendar (anniversaries, birthdays, holidays, diagnosis dates, etc.), and let your friends know you’re thinking of them as those dates approach.
  • Don’t take it personally if grieving friends don’t return messages or phone calls. Sometimes grief is too overwhelming for such seemingly simple tasks.

Repeat.

When friends are grieving, they get to decide what is helpful or what is offensive. Again, it’s not about you. If they say you’ve done something hurtful, own it. Apologize rather than defending yourself, and do better in the future. (And be proud of yourself for reaching out despite the discomfort of acknowledging death and loss. Thanks for reaching out to your friends.)