When was the last time you expressed sympathy to someone who had lost a loved one? Did you feel awkward or uncomfortable? Would you be surprised to learn you aren’t the only one who feels this way?
Let’s face it – nobody wants to talk about death and dying. It’s not a topic that inspires easy conversation and even though our mortality is undisputed, giving condolences to people who are grieving can be challenging. What’s the right thing to say? And how do you say it? Is it better to write a note or send flowers instead?
Remember first that every situation is different and nothing about death is black or white. Losing a loved one is difficult and everybody has their own, unique way of dealing with grief. Still, there are certain things you can say and do to support those who have suffered a loss without resorting to overused clichés and empty gestures.
What to say
It’s really not a question of what you say, but how you say it. Don’t be afraid to offer condolences at a funeral – it may not be easy, but your words and deeds are truly appreciated. Here are some ways to go about it:
- Just Listen – if you find yourself at a loss for words at a funeral, the best thing you can do is listen. Sit with those in mourning and offer empathy by listening to their stories about the dearly departed. Be open and empathetic and don’t try to monopolize the conversation. Some people might not want to talk at all, which is absolutely fine. In this case, know that just being there can provide comfort (but watch for body language cues and know when it’s time to leave).
- Share Memories – funerals are a celebration of life and sharing memories of those who have passed on is a good way to memorialize the event. Those who are grieving are often happy to hear stories about their loved ones – anecdotes about your relationship with the deceased can be uplifting in a time of stress, and also help distract from the situation at hand. Just make sure the focus of the story is not about you and make it brief – nobody likes a talkaholic!
- Offer Help – if you’re going to offer assistance, don’t say “Let me know if you need any help.” This will likely fall upon deaf ears as the affected person is probably deluged with offers of help and doesn’t want to be pressured to come up with something for you to do. Think of genuine ways you can help and be specific, e.g. “Don’t worry about cleaning house this week – I’ll pop over and help you out,” or “I know Mike walked the dogs in the mornings – I’d be happy to do that for you for the next few weeks.”
- Write a Letter – you may not get a chance to say anything to the family at the funeral but you can still express sympathy via a condolence letter. Your sentiments can be short and simple, e.g. “Please accept my condolences on the loss of your mother,” or you can share a warm memory so the reader understands how you felt about their loved one. Using the deceased’s name is important as it shows you aren’t afraid to speak of him or her. Your letter doesn’t have to perfect – just remember that it’s the thought that counts.
What NOT to say
You want to pay your respects and let the family know you care, but how do you say it and sound authentic at the same time? There are certain canned phrases that you should avoid saying at a funeral – here are some of them: