Funerals are hard for everybody. We don’t much like death in our culture. We avoid all contact with it, so much so that we call say “she passed,” “she went home,” “she passed over,” and “she’s gone,” rather than “she died.” Although “died” is a perfectly good word, we avoid it. Death means something else is in control, and we can’t live in the future anymore.
Death used to be part of life, but now we’ve pushed it so far into the future, so that we can forget about it. When my mother was 95 and dying of Alzheimer’s, the nurses would tell me about her “progress” at each meeting. Despite the fact that everyone in the room knew the end was near, I kept being told that she might soon improve.
At the funeral (now six years ago), well-meaning people who were terribly uncomfortable said things that were not comforting, trite, or simply awful. But what can we say? It’s such an difficult situation all the way around, what can we say and be sure it’s right?
Here are 5 things not to say, and 5 things that work better.
1. “I’m sorry for your loss.” I know that Law and Order has made this the catch-all appropriate phrase, and that’s exactly why you shouldn’t say it. The person will know you said it because you don’t know what else to say.
The better thing to say is, “I’m so sorry.” No more is needed. A touch on the elbow, shoulder or a hug is also fine if you know the person well enough.
2. “What can I do?” Don’t make the person come up with a small task to make you feel better. This is a better question after the funeral, and with a suggestion. “What can I do for you that’s helpful–pick up some groceries? Cook dinner? Take your car to be washed?” That let’s the person know what you are offering.
The better thing to say at the funeral is, “I’ll call in a week and ask what you need.” Then do it.
3. “Go ahead and cry, it will make you feel better.” Let the person decide when to cry or struggle not to cry. And right then, nothing will make her feel better.
Instead, say, “I’m keeping X in my prayers [or heart or thoughts]. And you, too.” That doesn’t require an answer and is a comforting remark.
4. “You’ll get closure soon.” The death of a loved one has no closure. There is no getting over it, it will change the life of the person left behind forever. And that’s fine. It’s one of the big changes we go through in life. Their life will never be the same, never heal over. There will always be a scar, and the person will have to learn how to live with death. In time the pain will be different, and she will create a new way to be, but there is no closure.
A better thing to say is, ” May you always have good memories.” Of course, this is best used if the person you are saying it to was not in an abusive relationship.
5. “This is all part of God’s plan.” Even if the person you are talking to believes this, right now it not a good time to remind her. She might be angry at God at the moment, and reminding her that she’s not in charge and her sorrow is somehow inappropriate is not comforting. If she doesn’t believe that every action is part of a divine plan, it sounds condescending and empty.
A better thing to say is, “I don’t know what to say.” You don’t have to know what to say. Honesty is a wonderful thing for a person who has suffered a loss. You don’t have to fix the person who is suffering. You just have to be there for her.
—Quinn McDonald is a writer, life- and creativity coach.