The loss of a loved one is an emotional moment for everyone. It’s hard not to feel sad and sorry that you can’t be there in person, but being away doesn’t imply you don’t care deeply about them.
According to experienced individuals, here are some recommendations on what to say and do when you can’t attend a funeral:
Former Public Relations Professional | Funeral Director | Owner, Diane Bruno Freelance LLC
What is the one reality all human beings face? We all will die. Maybe not the most upbeat introduction, but undeniable truth. You would think, in some way, this common thread would unite us, open our eyes to vulnerability, make us a tad kinder, and help us realize we have more in common than we have differences.
We need to acknowledge death, but we do not. We stick our heads in the sand and ignore the fragility of life, the gift of time, and the one transition we will all experience.
When someone you know has suffered a loss, you find yourself faced with the daunting task of what to do and, more importantly, what to say? And, if for some reason you cannot attend services in person, how do you best handle this?
As a funeral professional, one of the first lessons we learn is that our actions and our words have the power to ease or exasperate pain.
The evolution of the death care industry
Before the industrial revolution, women were the primary caregivers of the deceased. Departed loved ones were often “laid out” in the family home. There was little avoidance of death.
With the advent of the “modern” funeral and the evolution of the funeral industry business model—death became a business, and the chasm between death and everyday life took root.
As we have migrated throughout the country and moved away from extended family members, our connection to senior relations and our sense of community has almost vanished.
Understandably, you may have a hard time finding the right words. After all, our modern society has chosen almost to vilify the topic of death. To help you help those who have suffered a loss and honor the life of the departed— here are some suggestions.
While there are some clear dos and don’ts, much depends on your relationship to the decedent and/or your relationship with the grieving person and family.
Make every effort to attend some part of the service
If you have a close connection, do make every effort to attend some part of the service. Many Christian services have a wake, church service, funeral, or graveside service. The Jewish faith may have a temple service, funeral, and shiva.
It may not be necessary for you to attend every tier of service, but showing up in some capacity will mean a lot.
Be honest and assure the mourners that you will be thinking of them
If you cannot attend, be honest as to why and assure the mourner you will be thinking of them, and they will be in your thoughts and prayers. If you were close to the decedent, share a personal remembrance of how much they meant to you and how much they will be missed.
Our first inclination may be to send flowers to the funeral home. While it is customary, they are often a waste of money and may not even be noticed.
Flower arrangements are positioned according to relationship status. Closer the relationship dictates prominent/forward placement. A plant sent to the mourner’s home is a better choice but keep in mind it may not receive care during the time following services and may not last.
The better idea? Contribute to a charity in honor of the decedent.
Make it as personal as possible. Contribute to their house of worship, buy a mass card, send a personal sympathy card.
Offering food is a great way to show you care
The days following services are often busy. Grief hits home when the pace lessens. Gift cards to neighboring restaurants, food delivery services, and home-cooked meals will be very welcomed and are an ideal way to let them know they are still in your thoughts.
What to never say:
- “I know how you feel.” You never will. You do not want to make it more about you than them!
- “It was meant to be. It is for the best.”
- “They lived a long life, and it was their time.”
- “They are in a better place.”
- “At least they are not suffering.”
- “There is a reason for everything.”
- “Be strong.”
- “Time will heal.”
- “You will be fine.”
- “They did what they came here to do, and it was their time to go.”
- “God needed them more than you do.”
Try to push past your discomfort and don your empathic hat. If you were in pain, would any of these words comfort you? Mourners are often angry and confused, and these narratives are not always welcome.
What to say:
- “I am so sorry for your loss.”
- “I wish I had the right words. Just know I care.”
- “I don’t know how you feel, but I am here to help in any way I can.”
- “You and your loved one will be in my thoughts and prayers.”
- “My favorite memory of them is…”
- “I am here if you need anything at all, day or night.”
- “Don’t hesitate to ask for help. We all need a helping hand, and I am here for you.”
Remember that it is not about you
Remember, while this may be a hard time for you to find the right words and actions, it is not about you. Try to step out of your comfort zone.
Focus on them. Offering sympathy is a kind thing to do, but offering your empathic self is way more powerful and comforting.
What are some of the things people have said to you that eased your pain/or not?
Iris Waichler, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Writer, Choosing Therapy
Tell them they are in your thoughts and offer emotional support
The message you want to convey is: “I am thinking of you, and I want to be there for you to offer emotional support. You are in my thoughts.”
If the person is religious or you are, tell them they are in your prayers.
Express how you feel bad that you can’t attend the funeral
“I feel bad that I can’t physically be there with you to help you through this incredibly difficult time. I know how much (the person that died) meant to you. I imagine saying goodbye to this person at the funeral is going to be sad and painful for you.
Here is the reason I can’t be with you as much as I would like to be (i.e., I am ill, I couldn’t get a flight in time, they wouldn’t let me off of work).”
Send flowers or a card to express how much you care
If you are close with this person, you could send flowers to let them know you are thinking of them so when you see them you know that you are in my thoughts. Sending a card expressing how much you care and wish you could be there with them is another good idea.
Tell the family that you’ll be there for them
If you are close, tell them, “Although I cannot be with you, I want you to know I want to be there for you in any way that I can.”
You can also tell them:
“When you have a moment, I would like to talk to you or FaceTime so I can check in with you to see how you are doing. I want to know what the funeral service was like and how it was for you to be there and now afterward. I know once a funeral is over, people tend to drift away. We have been close for so long, and I really care about you.”
Inquire as to when you may see them to lend support
If it is possible and you are close, you can tell them:
“I would like to set up a time when I can come visit you so we can spend time together and I can check-in. If you would prefer and want to get away, you are always welcome to see me.
Finally, if it is OK with you, I would like to stay in touch and check in to see what other ways I can lend support as you go through this very difficult time. There may be things you need that I can help you with.”
Alicea Ardito, MSW, LCSW
Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Writer, Choosing Therapy
A funeral can provide an opportunity to celebrate the life of a person who has died and give friends and family the opportunity to share memories and feelings in a space that is appropriate for grief. Funerals can provide a sense of finality or closure.
Send a condolences card or letter
For those unable to attend a funeral, there are other ways to express sympathy, share memories and celebrate the life of the deceased.
Sending a card might not feel adequate, however, including a fond memory or expressing what you will remember most about the person may be meaningful to grieving loved ones.
Check-in or visit after the funeral
Reaching out to grieving loved ones in the months following the funeral is a way to show that you continue to think of the deceased person.
Do something in honor or memory of the person
There may be an opportunity to contribute to a cause or fund set up on behalf of the deceased. If there isn’t a formalized opportunity, decide on something that would be meaningful to the deceased or grieving loved ones and take action.
Be gentle and kind to yourself if you are unable to attend.
Jodi RR Smith
Etiquette Consultant and Founder, Mannersmith | Author, “From Clueless to Class Act: Manners for the Modern Woman“
Express your condolences immediately
First and foremost, you must center those mourning and not yourself. Make this about them and not about your schedule. Express your condolences immediately, in person if possible, by telephone if not.
Express your dismay at not being able to attend
When the funeral arrangements have been shared, let the person know you will not be there if you are unable to attend. You need not share why. Instead, express your dismay at not being able to attend.
Do something for the grieving family
Do something. At a minimum, a handwritten sympathy card with your condolences. If you are able to send flowers or food, do so. Donations in the person’s memory are also an appreciated gesture.
Visit the mourners
The funeral is often very busy, but the loss of a loved one is felt for years. In the weeks and months ahead, schedule a time to be with those in mourning. Then, as soon as you are available, be sure to visit the mourners.
Network Engineer, Skills Build Training
Explain your reasons and understand them
Explain why you are unable to attend such an important function. It is hard to explain the reason behind not attending the funeral. However, if you can explain your reasons and understand them, it will help you in overcoming the situation.
It is also a good way to let your loved ones know that you are thinking about them and that you are sorry for not being able to attend the funeral.
Tell them you will be thinking about the deceased and their families
Tell them that despite your absence, you will be thinking of the deceased and their family during the event. If you know that the deceased was a great person, tell them that you will be thinking of them and their family during the event. This way, they can continue to cherish the memory of their beloved.
Promise to visit and speak with them after the funeral
Promise to find some time after the funeral to visit and talk to them. You can also bring a fresh wreath for the deceased. The visit after the funeral is the most important part of it since everyone leaves, and reality sinks in that the person is gone indeed.
If you are not able to attend the funeral, you can bring a fresh wreath for the deceased. Some fresh flowers for the departed soul will bring a little bit of cheer to their family and help them in their grief.
Ask someone to represent you at the service
Ask someone to represent you at the service if it’s not appropriate for you to be there in person. If possible, make arrangements beforehand so that they can take over your duties as soon as possible after the service ends and before they leave for home or wherever else they are going afterward (if this is within reason).
If you’re unable to attend a funeral, whether due to illness or other commitments, there are some things you can do and say to show your support and condolences.
My advice would be:
Send flowers with a card
Send flowers with a card that has the message written inside it as opposed to one that is attached with a magnet or string to the vase. This way, those receiving the flowers can keep your message private and read it when they have time alone.
Make a donation
If you cannot attend a funeral but would like to make a contribution in memory of the deceased, consider making a donation to a charity that was important to them. This will be more meaningful than sending flowers and can benefit other people too.
Call or send an email with your condolences
Don’t forget the other people who are affected by this loss. Call or send an email to the person who is arranging the funeral on behalf of the family to let them know you are thinking of them and offer your condolences.
Give your condolences in person
If you are unable to attend the funeral but are close enough to the people organizing the funeral that you feel able to give your condolences in person, then do so.
If this is not possible or if it is too difficult for you to face at this time, then call instead. Either way, let them know you care.
Visit later on
Sometimes people find it hard to attend a funeral, and the best thing maybe for them to pay their respects at another time when they can make more of an effort.
If you feel this is the case, do not hesitate in letting the family know this; many people find comfort in knowing others care enough to attend at a time when it is easier for them.
Founder, Motherhood HQ
It’s okay to say no when someone is asking you to attend some gatherings. But when it comes to attending a funeral, the last thing you want to say is “No.“
But if you really can’t, you’ll be left with finding the right words and right gestures instead of just saying “No” directly. Here’s what you can do when you can’t attend a funeral.
Be there for the grieving family after the funeral
I once missed the funeral of a very close friend’s mother. And I just can’t bear the guilt of missing it even if I managed to justify myself for not attending. It goes without saying that the best you can do when you haven’t attended the actual funeral is to be with the grieving family after.
I’ve dealt with it for days and finally freed myself from the guilt after personally visiting the grieving family days after the funeral and paying my respect to the deceased.
Connecting via phone should be your last option
That being said, you need to understand that missing a funeral can be viewed as disrespectful if you don’t show you care. So when someone is grieving, connecting via phone should be your last option when telling them you can’t attend the funeral.
It’s always best to send flowers to show your condolences
Most people choose to let their calls go to voicemail when they’re grieving, and your calls will surely be one of them once you call. But if you manage to let them know you’re not coming, it’s always best to send flowers to show your condolences.
Edyta Garcia Luís
Content and Marketing Manager, Euroflorist
Send a funeral wreath or a card
Saying goodbye to a person we know well is important not only to their closest families but also to ourselves. Even when we can not attend the official ceremony, a small gesture like sending a funeral wreath or a card can help us process the loss.
Nowadays, there are many online flower and funeral arrangement delivery services, which will deliver funeral wreaths and flowers with a personal message anywhere in the world.
Charity donation in the name of the deceased
The moment of collecting money among co-workers or team members can be a great chance to exchange thoughts with others mourning and reminiscing. Another idea is to make a team charity donation in the name of the person who passed away and add information about it to the condolences card to his family.
Write a condolences card
Writing a condolences card is definitely not easy, but we should make it as personal as we can and abstain from clichés. It is a great way to highlight the person’s greatest personality traits and achievements, as well as express our gratitude and appreciation.
COO, Sleep Advisor
Express sensitivity and empathy
During the pandemic, it’s become even more difficult to attend important gatherings like we used to before. This makes it all the more important to know how to express sensitivity and empathy when you’re unable to attend a funeral.
Send a bouquet of flowers together with a card
Last year, a close friend of my family contracted Covid-19 and sadly passed away. What made things tricky was that this family friend lived in the Philippines (where most of my extended family live), and I was unable to attend the funeral because of lockdown restrictions due to fears over the omicron variant of Covid-19.
I was very sad to miss his funeral, but it was impossible for me to attend due to the strict international travel bans at the time. It felt like numerous circumstances conspired against me and prevented me from showing my love and support for the people I care about.
His family was disappointed that my immediate family (my mom, dad, and wife) couldn’t come to the funeral, but they were also very understanding and supportive of us.
In the end, all I could do was comfort his family over the phone and through video calls on Zoom. I also sent them a bouquet of flowers and a card to further express my condolences.
Saying things like sorry and doing things like sending flowers may seem like hollow gestures during a grieving period. And yet, they’re still able to bring even just a tiny bit of comfort to someone in need, and that’s what really matters at the end of the day.
Send a card or use flowers
Flowers or a card are one of the most typical methods to let someone know you won’t be attending a funeral.
Notify the family if you are unable to attend the funeral
In any case, it’s critical to notify the family if you are unable to attend the funeral. With these messages, explain why and apologize:
- “Please accept my heartfelt condolences for being unable to attend the funeral. I really wanted to go, but I couldn’t get away from work in time. Please accept my apologies. My heartfelt condolences and love.”
- “I’m writing to let you know that I won’t be able to attend the funeral. Unfortunately, I’ve caught the virus and am currently unable to attend. I’m sad I won’t be able to lend my support or say my goodbyes. I’m sending you my condolences and love.”
- “I’m sorry I won’t be able to attend the funeral because my small kid is sick. I’ll keep you in my thoughts and pray for [the deceased’s name]. My sincerest apologies; I really wanted to be there to support you, and I’m so sad I won’t be able to. Please accept my apologies and know that I’m thinking of you.”
- “Please accept my heartfelt sympathy for your loss. I had everything prepared for the funeral, but work has asked me to come in, and I couldn’t refuse. I hope you understand why I am unable to attend. I’ll be there in spirit as well as in body.”
- “I know it’s pitiful of me, but [deceased’s name’s] death has hit me so hard that I don’t believe I’m in the right frame of mind to attend their burial. I’m not sure I’ll be able to handle it. I’m sorry for the inconvenience, and I hope you appreciate how tough as it would be for me to do so.”
What you can say on the phone:
- “I realize it’s not the best moment to speak, but I’d like to clarify why I won’t be attending your mother’s burial. At work, I’m covering for someone, and they won’t let me go early. I sincerely apologize and hope you will accept my apology.”
- “I wanted to contact you to inform you that I will not be attending the funeral.”
- “I’m sorry, but I’m not doing well, and my doctor has advised me to rest.” “I’m so sorry and disappointed that I won’t be able to attend.”
- “I’m simply phoning to express my sorrow at learning about [deceased’s] death. They were a one-of-a-kind individual who would be sorely missed by many. I’m sorry, but I won’t be able to attend the burial, but I’ll drop by next week for a talk and see if you need anything.”
- “I’m heartbroken to hear of your mother’s death. I won’t be able to join the funeral in person, so I’ll send flowers. Please know that during this tough time, I would be thinking about you and your family.”
Avoid focusing too much on why you are unable to attend
Not being able to go to attend a funeral is not a crime, but it can often feel like it is, which is why you should always make an effort to show that you care in some other way.
This means sending a note with flowers, reaching out via text, or even meeting them in person to express your regret. However, try to avoid focusing too much on why you are unable to attend the funeral.
This is because any reason you give will always seem insignificant when compared with the loss they have endured. Instead, you should give your condolences and focus on expressing sadness or remorse over the fact that you’re unable to be there for them.
Send them a bouquet of flowers along with a note
For instance, a great way to go about this is to send them a bouquet of flowers with a note that says something along the lines of:
I am so deeply saddened to learn of [Name of the deceased] passing. They will leave behind a huge gap in so many lives, and while I wanted to come and attend the funeral to say my goodbyes to [Name of the deceased] in person, due to some unavoidable circumstances, I will have to do so in spirit.
I will be thinking of you and everyone there, so should there be anything that you need, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
All my love,
Funerals are the worst events. They are sad and somewhat depressing. Still, that’s not an excuse not to attend, especially if the decease or the decease’s family is close.
Sadly, sometimes we can’t be there at all. Work, illness, travel, and similar situations might get in the way.
A kind message is what a grieving person needs
Death always finds a way to tear the words out of everyone’s mouths. Still, a kind message might be just what that person needs to cope with grief.
So, here you have a couple of ideas:
- “It breaks my heart not being able to be with you. I’ll always have a special room in my heart for XXXX.”
- “Even though I can’t be with you right now, I want you to know that I’m sorry for your loss, and I’m able for whatever you need.”
- “I hear about XXXX passing. Please accept my sincerest apologies for not being able to attend the funeral. They will be in my prayers.”
Send flowers to the funeral with a sensible message
Not being able to attend doesn’t mean that you can’t do something. It is a common practice to send flowers to the funeral with a sensible message.
Alternatively, you can send something unique.
I remember when the father of my best friend passed. He loved to watch our rugby matches. He never missed one. Sadly, I wasn’t in the country when he died. But I send my first rugby ball with a written message to my dad’s friend.
But, keep in mind if you are going to send an object, it has to be something personal.
As there seem to be many folks transitioning (dying) these days and how emotionally funerals can be, I only attend those with whom I have had close ties.
Call common friends to support them during the difficult time
In fact, my last one was three years when the spouse of my former supervisor and friend passed. A former colleague whom I worked with and served on a number of committees recently lost her spouse.
She texted me the arrangements, including the “viewing” that same afternoon with the funeral at 9 am the following day. While I was at the eye doctor, I didn’t see it until later that day. My eyes were dilated, and it took a while before I could clearly see it.
Knowing I wouldn’t be able to attend either, I responded to her text and promised to call her in a few days.
My intent was to ensure support for her during this difficult time. In the meantime, I called a few friends and colleagues we had in common to see if she had contacted them about this. Several had not heard, so I then called all who knew her and me to share the info.
I then sent her a sympathy card, and a small check as folks often have added expenses. I figured it might help her with gas, food, etc.
When we finally spoke, she thanked me for all my support, including cards and checks from many I contacted. With so much going on, the shock of his passing, the funeral, she said she figured by letting me know, I would let others know.
Other times I have taken food by the house of someone whose loved one passed, one of those rotisserie chickens, bread, prepared potato or macaroni salad, bagged salad, assorted salad dressings, anything already prepared can be invaluable at times such as this.
CEO, Filter Smart
Focus on how you want to support the deceased’s family
When talking to a grieving person, it is best to do a little brainstorming before you say anything. Instead of focusing on why you can’t attend the funeral, focus on how you want to support the family that has experienced the loss.
Any excuse you give will seem insignificant when compared with the grief they are experiencing. So, focus more on what you can do to support them through this difficult time or a way to honor the deceased.
Send flowers and a card expressing your condolences
You may also send flowers and a card expressing your condolences. They are not just a wonderful way to show your emotion, but they are also a sign of care. You can send them to the funeral home or the grieving person’s home.
Continue to support the grieving family
After the funeral, continue to support the grieving person and family. There is quite a lull after a funeral. If you can be present during this time, it is appreciated just as much, if not more, than if you were present during the funeral.
CEO and Founder, 1Energy Systems
The funeral of someone close to you is itself a very depressing and heart-breaking journey to go through. Upon that, being unable to attend them and politely declining is also very difficult.
Some ways to do it are:
Let their family and friends know about it beforehand
If you are not able to attend the funeral of someone, let their family and friends know about it beforehand. Send them a card, or a bouquet or a letter explaining the reason why you are not able to attend it. Other than this, you can either message or call and decline your attendance.
Write or say polite, grieving words
It will show your sadness and inability to attend the funeral. Apologize for your absence from the event. Also, pay your last rights to the departed soul.
You can even send a sympathy gift like a glass bird set, or a key chain depicting your favorite memory with the departed soul.
Founder, My Voyage Scotland
I have, unfortunately, been in the very same situation where I have not been able to attend a funeral. This would be my advice for the person who is in this situation:
Let them know either face-to-face or by phone
If you find yourself in a situation where you are unable to attend a funeral, you should let the family or loved ones know either face-to-face or by phone if neither is possible, then with a sympathy card.
Express sympathy for their loss
You should express your feelings and sadness towards the departed and give them your sympathy for their loss. As you are not able to attend the funeral, it is important at this point to let them know you are there for them. Let them know you can’t attend and give a solid reason why.
Schedule a time to visit after the funeral
Try to schedule a time after the funeral to visit and spend some time reflecting with them. Let them know you are available to walk the dog, help with groceries, or whatever your time permits.
Chief Editor, My GRE Exam Preparation
It can be virtually difficult to make the family understand why you couldn’t attend the funeral. Since this topic is very sensitive for the family, instead of explaining to them your situation why you will not be able to attend the funeral, focus on giving empathy.
Sincerely apologize that you will not be able to attend
Starting the conversation with an apology is a good option. Say that you are disappointed by yourself. Tell them you understand this; it will be hard for them, and you are upset that you are not there to support them.
And most importantly, sincerely apologize that you will not be able to attend the funeral. Understand that the family has lost their loved one. Ask them if there is you can help in some way.
Visit the deceased person’s grave before meeting their relatives
Whenever possible, before meeting the deceased person’s relative, it would be adequate if you visited the dead person’s grave and offered your prayers. Let your emotions out and say what you would have said on the day of the funeral.
This will make their family members feel that you genuinely cared for the person, and it will also give you inner satisfaction and a sense of closure.
Vice President, Aquion Energy
Be sincere and honest with yourself
I’ve been to quite a few funerals in my life and have had to miss a few as well, due to various reasons. My take or perspective on this topic is that the first step is to be sincere or honest with yourself.
If you genuinely cannot attend a funeral, there are certain things you can do or say to help console the loved ones of the recently passed individual.
Some things you can do immediately is to send over a:
- Condolences card
- Comfort food
But you can also extend your support in the long run by paying them a visit or calling in once in a while.
Let them know you’re sorry and share an anecdote
As for the “what to say” part, you need to let them know that you are sorry you couldn’t attend the funeral and maybe share an anecdote. You can also offer support or help in whatever way is best within your capacity.
Content Strategist, FitnessVolt
Write a letter to tell them the good memories of their loved ones
It is always heartbreaking when you are unable to make it to someone’s
funeral. However, there must be many reasons that underlay this decision
of not being able to visit a funeral.
In such cases, it becomes harder to tell the family that you won’t be able to attend the funeral. In such cases, a good word and a good deed help you.
When you miss a funeral, write a letter to the lost one and their family with words:
“I served as their one of the closest friends and acquaintances that made it harder for me to miss the chance to see them for the last time. However, in all necessitating times of my life, they brought a ray of light that gave
me immense hopes to rise again.”
When someone’s loved one is lost in the Stardust, they want to hear the
good things about their loved ones, and they forget about your absence.
Founder, Handy Guide Wine
Let the other people feel and know that you are there for them
Funeral unfortunately happens, it’s life. It also happens that we cannot attend to it for whatever reason, even if it is for someone we really care about.
What is important is to let the other people feel and know that you are there for them, even if you cannot physically attend the ceremony.
It has happened to me once, and from both sides, and I’ve really appreciated the fact that the other person called me to tell me that. That’s why if I cannot attend I call.
In a distressed and emotional situation like that of a funeral is very important you make the other person feel your presence. A phone call is the closest substitute for not being able to attend in person.
Sending letters or flowers are nice ways to complement the phone call, not substitute it. What I did as well, was to let a few days pass by, and then I checked in on the person, just again to let her know I was there for her.
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Let us improve this post!
Tell us how we can improve this post?