What to Say to the Bereaved and What Not to Say

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It might feel daunting to approach a grieving family member, but you have gone to a funeral to pay your respects to the departed, offer support to the family, or share your memories; all of these are perfect reasons to speak to those who are grieving.

While each situation, and every person, is different, the key is to take your cues from those in mourning. For example, if the bereaved is chatty and relaxed, we suggest you share a special memory or tell a funny story about the departed. In contrast, if the family is quiet, closed off, or moving quickly among those at the service, this likely is not the time to launch into a long story about your favourite recollection.

First, you must acknowledge the reality of the situation. It is perfectly fine to say, “I am so sorry,” or “I miss him/her/them.” Then move on to the circumstances; you can ask, “how are you doing?” or make a statement like “I’m sure you’d rather be at X.” If the bereaved talks about their loved one, you can share a memory or tell a story about them. Then close the conversation with a hug, a sincere offer of help, a time to get together again, or a sentiment, such as you’ll miss them/love them/whatever is appropriate for your relationship.

Here are a few specific suggestions, regardless of the circumstances:

What not to say:

  • Don’t make vague offers to help or suggest they call you if they need anything. It would be far better to be specific. A few examples would be:
    • I can walk your dog this week. Can I come by at 5:30 every day to get her?
    • I’d love to help you at the house. I’ll come by on Sunday at 1.
    • I’ll bring you dinner for the family on Friday. Does dropping off at 4 work for you?

While these may seem pushy, they have the option to decline your offer, and taking some tasks off their plates can be a big help at this time. Just be sure that if you make a plan, come through on the delivery.

  • This is not about you! While you may be able to relate and can use that as an opening (i.e. I also lost my mother), this is not the time to relive your situation. This moment, this discussion, is about the family who is grieving here and now. Keep the focus on them.
  • Don’t pry. If the bereaved family wants to share details about the passing, they will. If they don’t offer details, do not ask. Refrain from gossiping or sharing details that were shared with you in confidence. If you are unsure if specific details are common knowledge, do not share them.
  • Don’t be afraid to cry. If you cannot cry at a funeral, where can you? Of course, if you want to excuse yourself, you can, but it is perfectly acceptable to cry.
  • Don’t ask to be included in the service – the family will contact who they want to have involved. However, if you’re concerned about your role, you can ask what they have planned; it’s a polite way to get details without forcing yourself into the arrangements.

What you can say:

  • Engage to the extent the bereaved can. If they only say, “thank you for coming,” offer a straightforward, simple reply like, “I wouldn’t be anywhere else.” However, if they speak about something the departed always enjoyed or always laughed about, consider it an opening to share your favourite memory of, or a story about, the deceased. The family comes first, and you should take your lead from them. If you have some information to impart, consider your timing. If it’s funeral-related (for example, you know the departed wanted a particular song played at their funeral) be sure to speak up. However, if you want to reminisce and share fond memories, later might be better timing for them. Read their emotions.
  • You can ask, “Was this expected?” If you were surprised by the passing, this is an unobtrusive way to inquire, and it allows the bereaved to reply as simplistically or with as much detail as they want to share.
  • Listen. This may be a chance for the bereaved to convey messages that were left with them (such as last requests). They may need to clear the air about past events. They may need to vent. They may speak without thinking. Listen, but know that this is a deeply emotional time.
  • Reflect on what you believe made the deceased special, remarkable, fun, or extraordinary. You can talk about their humour, passion, work, successes, a prized possession, a shared experience; there is no limit. If you engage with the bereaved and they’re open to chatting, anything you share with love, admiration, joy, respect, or appreciation will be fondly received. It’s always pleasing to hear about how loved a departed one was and their impact on others.
  • Share your love for those who are grieving. If you’re at a service because someone you love is suffering, tell them you’re sorry they’re going through this and how much they mean to you. A reminder that you love them can make this time a bit less challenging.
  • Close the conversation before moving away. “I’ll miss X,” a hug or a commitment to seeing the bereaved at a specific time can all end the interaction.
  • Whether you find the right words or not, show up for the grieving. If their grass needs cutting, show up and do it. If they mention needing to drop off dry cleaning, show up, get it, and drop it off for them. Helping to complete tasks, especially in the weeks after the service, can help immensely. And your love and compassion will shine through.

 Many people worry about what to say to the bereaved, but it’s hard to go wrong offering heartfelt condolences and a special memory. If you’re unsure of what to say or of how to approach a subject, speak to others who know the family or knew the departed. And if we can be of help, feel free to reach out to us at Country Hill Crematorium. We are available to discuss common situations and offer suggestions.

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