Many of us feel uncomfortable about attending visitations and funeral services because we just don’t know what to say to the bereaved. We want to comfort the family, to offer our help, to show our support, but we are afraid of saying the wrong thing, and afraid of saying nothing at all. After the funeral, our discomfort may keep us from visiting with the bereaved, as much as we should- even at the time they need our support the most. Here is a guide, designed to help you comfort the grieving.
What Not To Say
Often, our desire to help the bereaved can backfire on us when we try to ‘make things better’. We want to remind our grieving friends of all the reasons to be happy, that death works as part of God’s plan, or convince them that the spirit is living on even though the body has died. Yes, the deceased may be in a better place now. Yes, God may have called them home. After a time, the bereaved may take comfort in these thoughts. Unfortunately, as well meaning as these statements may be, our attempts to minimise the sadness and suffering sends the unintended message of minimising the grief of the survivors and the consequences of the death. What the grieving need is for us to acknowledge the importance of the death and their feelings about it.
Empathy is what the grieving need, but saying that you know just how they feel is not empathy. We all experience loss in our own ways and while circumstances may seem similar, one widow never really knows just what the experience of another widow is like. Empathy is about learning what the bereaved are going through, not telling them what they are going through. When we say we know, or tell them how we felt, we are making it about ourselves, when it should be all about them.
What To Say
Listening and responding is more important than any sympathetic statement or gesture you can think up beforehand. Surprisingly few people actually take the time to listen to the bereaved, but being heard and understood is what they need the most. After you have really listened and responded thoughtfully, here are some other helpful things to share with them: ‘You are in my thoughts’. Let them know that you appreciate the significance of their loss, and that you are concerned about them. If you have included them in your prayers, let them know that too.
‘I remember’… Share a special memory of the deceased. Remembering an old favorite story, or learning a new one can be wonderful gift. ‘I will miss’… Even though your focus should be on the grieving person, and not on yourself, let them know that you too will miss this special person, and that you share in their loss.
‘I would like to’… Take your vague ‘We’re here for you if you need us’ one step further by offering help with something specific. ‘I’d like to take care of your snow shoveling this year’ or ‘I’d like to take you to the grocery store’. You don’t have to insist, but being specific about what you could help with makes it easier for them to take you up on your offer.
‘We love you’… This is what is most important, and it encompasses all the previous ideas. When we lose someone, we need to know that we are loved and cared for. You can even communicate this just by being there. If you have expressed that love with your presence, thoughtfulness, words or actions, you have made a difference.
And When To Say It
The short answer to this question is ‘as often as possible’, but there are some important considerations to keep in mind about timing and comforting the bereaved. At the Funeral: The time that a family spends saying goodbye to their loved one is difficult, emotionally charged, and very important. Receiving support from friends is very important too. If you plan on visiting with the family prior to a funeral, make sure you arrive early enough to do so. The family will feel compelled to visit with everyone who has come to support them, but they also need time to say their goodbyes before the service starts. When people arrive just before the service and expect to visit, the family either feels badly for refusing, or they miss their chance to properly say their goodbyes. Please come early to funerals and visit and support the family, but if you have to arrive right before the service starts, don’t put the family in a tough spot. Visit with them after the service.
Follow Up (And Don’t Be Afraid To Cross The Street)
It’s easy for the bereaved to say that they’re fine when they’re really not. Later on, they may find that they really do need the help or the companionship that was offered at the funeral. So, follow up on your offers of help a few weeks and months after the funeral, even if they were refused initially. Many bereaved people report that after a death, friends and acquaintances seem to avoid them. Not knowing what to say, and feelings of discomfort about the topic of death can keep us from giving the bereaved the support they need. Sending a sympathy card or letter right away can make it easier for you to talk with a bereaved friend because the topic of the death has already been broached in a gentle way. If you see a friend who has lost a loved one, make the extra effort to engage them, and just ask how they are doing. We often watch what we say, so as not to remind our friend of the death unnecessarily. Most likely, the death is never far from their mind; so don’t be afraid of the topic coming up. By the same token, your friend may have many other things they would prefer to talk about.
The support and acknowledgement of friends and family play a very important role in easing the suffering of the bereaved. Primarily, they need us to acknowledge the importance of their loss, the importance of their loved one, and simply to demonstrate our love and concern for them. We must remember that we cannot ‘fix’ the situation for them, as much as we might like to do so. The comfort we can provide must come from listening, and expressing our love and concern; walking by their side through a difficult time.