Even people who are rarely at a loss for words may find themselves tongue-tied at a funeral. They not only don’t know what to say, they are afraid of what not to say to those in mourning.
Whether you were extremely close to the bereaved, or don’t know the mourners that well, or didn’t even know the deceased at all, deciding on the appropriate words of comfort can be tricky. Following are some of the best things to say at a funeral, depending upon your relationship with the deceased and survivors.
The adage “do unto others” may not apply when it comes to things to say at funerals. Everyone reacts to grief in his or her own way. While you may think others would like to hear detailed stories about the deceased, for some this may be too painful. Take cues from their body language.
Some people, even in grieving, are too polite to voice their objections. It’s important to monitor the bereaveds’ reaction to what you’re saying and, if you see them recoil, cut your comments short and give them some space.
As with any conversation, be sure to listen to the other person. If they tell you that “now’s not the time” or “I really don’t want to hear about that now,” respect their wishes.
If you’re wondering what not to say at a funeral, here are a few tips. Don’t say that the deceased is better off now. Definitely don’t say that the survivor is better off now! Don’t say that the deceased is in a better place or with the angels (especially if the deceased was not religious). Never say “I know how you feel.” Even if you have lost a loved one, everyone’s grief is different and saying this may be seen as being dismissive of the person’s feelings. Unfortunately, even the best-intended words may be misconstrued by those who are grieving. If you see that their reaction is not what you expected, be quick to follow up with “I’m so sorry if I offended you. That was certainly not my intention. Please accept my apology and know that I was attempting to offer words of comfort.”
Keep in mind that if you have the urge to avoid speaking to the family, fight the urge. The family needs all the support it can get at this difficult time. Remember, too, that they may still be in shock. Any awkwardness on your part will probably not even be noticed.
And don’t be afraid that what you say will bring surviving family members to tears. Crying is a natural, healthy release after the loss of a loved one. True, some people do not want to show their emotions in public and will suppress them. So, if someone is not openly weeping at a funeral do not judge them. They could be feeling the grief even more deeply than someone who appears outwardly emotionally wrought.
No matter how saddened you are by the person’s death, the funeral is the time to give comfort, not receive it. You must put your own feelings aside and focus on the grieving family.
Attending a funeral is a good opportunity to consider what you'd want for your own memorialization. You can even plan it now, decades in advance, so your loved ones don't have to worry about it later. Learn more about advance funeral planning.
Sometimes it’s not all about what you say at a funeral. Often a sympathetic look or a bear hug can go a long way. In fact, they can say a lot more than actual words.
Less is definitely more in the funeral receiving line. Others are waiting their turn, so don’t monopolize the conversation.
Don’t be afraid to use touch to convey your feelings, as long as it’s appropriate. Those who are bereaved may miss the touch of their loved one. A hand on a shoulder or knee, a pat on the back or a squeeze of the hand can say “I’m so very sorry.”
When in doubt, you can always rely on these simple words: I’m here for you.
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