What do you say when someone dies? What not to say!

Overheard at just about every funeral service is, “I know how your feel,” or its close cousin, “I know what you are going through.”

Guess what?   You do not.  You do not even really know how you would feel if you just lost your child or parent, or anybody you cared about for that matter.   And if you lost your child, or parent or anybody you care about, that experience is your own – and it is unique to only you.

We all have an idea of how we would feel when an important person in our life dies.   For those who have gone through such a devastating loss, you just feel it.   We do not try to figure out in advance how we will feel, how we should feel, or how the world around us expects us to feel.   We just feel.   We hurt in a way that is indescribable, and the pain of losing a loved one is beyond … oops, here I am trying to define how people feel.

So, what do you say, or not say, when someone dies?   First, some don’ts.

Don’t say some of the obvious things that you think may be comforting but are not, such as:  “At least his suffering is over.” or “She is in a better place.” or “You can have another child.” or “Time will heal your pain.” or “God works in mysterious ways.” or, and trust… me this next one has been overheard at many funeral services, “He wouldn’t want to be a vegetable.

Don’t ask the griever what happened.   It is better to let a person share their story when they are ready to tell it; not when you are ready to hear it.   If and when they do share the details of their loss, don’t violate the griever’s trust in you by sharing personal information with others.

Grieving takes time and patience, and does not run its course according to a fixed timetable.  Some people get on with living within days, while for others, years may pass and grieving clings to their souls and presses their emotional buttons at the hearing of a song, watching waves lapping upon the shore, a glimpse of an old photo and even certain smells.

There are many things that you can do and say that may offer comfort.   In relating to a grief stricken person, little things may be far more significant than you could imagine.   To begin, offer to go to the funeral home with a griever if they are alone, including helping with the decisions on buying cemetery property and arranging for funeral services that must be made, if not already arranged for.   Have a frank discussion with a griever before sitting with a funeral director, and help them avoid spending more than they can afford.   Remember, there is a fine line between helping and intruding.  If invited to assist, explore their needs instead of dictating what you think they should do.

Instead of offering to help, invest your time and energy, and actually help.  Make a meal, baby-sit the kids and pets, cut their grass, wash their car or clean their house for the guests that will be arriving soon.   Go shopping for necessities such as milk, eggs, coffee, tea and especially, toilet paper.   Odd, but unexpected hoards of people need to eat and, well, you know.

Silence and hugs can be golden at such times.   Being there is quite often more important than trying to say just the right thing.   This is not a time to be clever or funny.   There is no right thing to be said.   Maintain your relationship with a mourner after the funeral.   So many times after the death of a loved one, everyone goes back to their lives and the mourner is left all alone.   If you think they would benefit from you staying overnight for the first night or two after the funeral, pack a bag and be there for them.   Some will welcome the company while others would rather be alone.

Call the griever following the death of someone important in their lives.   You will need to initiate calls and inclusion in dinners out.   For many married people, once a spouse dies, their social status has changed from being a couple to being, at least in their minds, the third wheel.   Care for them.   Be there after the event of death has come and gone.   A griever is like a burn victim.   They have raw, exposed emotions that pain to the touch, yet they still are in need of a hug.   When a little time has passed, share your own losses and how the death of that special person has affected you, how you adapted and how sometimes, outside professional help may be beneficial.

Use the name of the deceased.   This person played an important role in a lot of people’s lives.   Their name and their memory did not die with them.   Ask about their loved one.   Ask what they miss the most.   If you have some uplifting stories to tell about the person who just died, share them.   You may just give them something to hold onto, and to cherish.   Parents of fallen soldiers always want to hear the heroic stories about their offspring.   A spouse appreciates discovering acts of kindness that were performed by their husband or wife.   A child needs to know that the man in the casket was more than just a dad, a husband and a personal banker.

For Christians, death is bitter sweet.  For true believers, we are glad that our loved ones are in heaven and we look forward to being with them again one day.   But, truth be told, we would much rather have our loved one here with us, right now, reading this article and learning about how they should act, or what they should or should not say at the next funeral they attend.

In talking with a client recently, she mentioned that a friend of hers lost her husband to cancer, and that she visited with her friend on a regular basis.   The widow was finding it so difficult without her husband of 60 years.   One day, my client told her that she wished that she could say something that would make her feel better.   The grieving friend told her that “my visits with her, just sitting and listening to her talk, meant so much to her.”   Cost to be there – zero. Benefit to participants – as they say, priceless.

So, what can a person say when someone dies?  “I am thinking of you.  I wish there were words that I could say that would comfort you,”  or  “She was such a fine person – and give a for instance,”  or  “We are saddened by your loss, and we care about you deeply,”  or  “I am so sorry for your loss. What you are going through must be very hard,”  or “It hurts me to see you hurting.”

What to say and what not to say are both important, but ultimately not as important as just showing up.   Fear of saying or doing the wrong thing has kept many away from a funeral service. Grieving people will not be aware of who did or did not come to a funeral service while the service is going on, but in time, all is revealed.   It is pretty weak to convince yourself, let alone the grieving family, that your reason for not coming to pay your respects was because you were afraid of saying the wrong thing.   Being there exclaims that “I care enough to forget my own fears and come in support of those left behind.”

Remember, one day we will all be at the receiving end of these do’s and don’ts, so do unto others as you would have them do unto you.   visit our website at www.calumetparkcemetery.com or email us at dmoran@calumetparkcemetery.com

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