What to Say to Someone Going to a Funeral?

There are many ways to show support for a person that is going through the grieving process.

Some people might express their condolences and offer words of encouragement, while others might avoid bringing up certain things to avoid making things more uncomfortable.

Here are the things you could say to provide support for a friend or loved one during their time of mourning, as advised by experts.

Jennifer Tomko, LCSW

Jennifer Tomko

Licensed Clinical Social Worker | Owner, Clarity Health Solutions

“I honestly don’t know what to say right now, but I’m here for you.”

Grief is a journey. It is an evolving process and is a unique experience for each person. Do not judge your or someone else’s feelings, just notice them.

If you want to help friends and family through the grieving process:

  • Don’t judge the person.
  • Be patient with the bereaved.
  • Trust their own process.
  • Check-in often.
  • Validate their feelings.
  • They are likely feeling powerless right now, so help them have control of their own decisions.

Avoid toxic positivity

Toxic positivity has been around since the 1980s, but we are hearing a lot more about it now due to the pandemic. Basically, it is when somebody comes to us and tells us something, and we find ourselves saying statements like:

  • “Just get over it.”
  • “Don’t think about it. Just stay positive.”
  • “It could be worse.”

Those expressions are not helpful. They are just dismissive.

When somebody comes to us because they are going to a funeral, they are already feeling low or unheard, and they are coming for validation. It’s really important that we’re not contributing to the loneliness that they might be experiencing or making them feel guilty or shameful about having a negative experience.

To be supportive, empathize with them, validate them, and use statements like:

  • “I honestly don’t know what to say right now, but I’m here for you.”
  • “Sorry you are going through this.”
  • “Sorry you are struggling.”

If you are on the receiving end, it is really helpful to recognize that the person who is saying these things probably isn’t trying to be cruel. They are actually coming with the best of intentions.

To handle these toxic positivity moments, recognize the other person’s intentions.

Oftentimes, a person simply doesn’t know what to say and instead says the wrong thing. Let them know what you need from them. If you just want someone to listen and not provide advice in response, tell them that. It is a really great way to empower yourself.

Coping mechanisms when grieving:

  • Allow yourself to cry.
  • Talk to the deceased aloud if needed.
  • Tap into your spirituality.
  • Remember the good times.
  • Consider what good parts of that person continue to influence you (so they continue to live on within you).
  • Self-nurture.
  • Spend time with your support system.
  • Connect with a grief group, usually offered for free at your local Hospice. *You don’t have to have utilized Hospice care to get bereavement counseling.

Because of travel restrictions and social distancing, a lot of people are unable to attend the funerals of loved ones and grieve the way they normally would.

If you aren’t able to attend a funeral or wake in person, here are some suggestions on how to mourn:

  • Funeral homes are now offering virtual services. They can help with the religious and cultural traditions to be met for the funeral service.
  • Plan a funeral service for the future when everyone can get together.
  • Have a simple ceremony at home. Even if it isn’t the ideal situation, it is likely to bring some peace.
  • Write a goodbye letter to that person.
  • Create a book/collage of memories.
  • Make a teddy bear from the loved one’s clothing. There are patterns online.
  • Create a candle from the loved one’s favorite fragrance.
  • Compile the loved one’s favorite music.
  • Allow yourself to be creative when memorializing the life of a loved one.

Overcoming guilt

Another emotion I have noticed patients experience as part of the grieving process is guilt. In this pandemic, it is likely to be exponential. The internal assumption, if someone gets COVID-19, will be, this was preventable. Taking responsibility for the things that led up to someone passing is dangerous.

If you find yourself thinking things like, “We shouldn’t have gone on that trip, it was my idea,” or “I should have taken them to the hospital sooner,” or “I should have been at the hospital with them,” then talk to someone who can reality check those feelings.

Most likely, you did the best you could with what you knew at the time.

There are limitations that are being set upon us right now that make it difficult for us to do everything right. Even if there is something you could have done better, forgive yourself. The guilt doesn’t serve any purpose to you, and your loved one probably wouldn’t want you to feel that way. Honor them by healing yourself.

There are 7 Stages of Grief:

Elizabeth Kübler-Ross grief cycle started with 5 stages of grief but expanded to 7 stages. Please be aware that not everyone experiences every stage, and the process is not linear.

We cannot check off the box when we feel like we completed a stage. We may return to that stage multiple times.

  1. Shock – This is often a surreal feeling. We may feel like we are walking in a dream as we try to process what is happening.
  2. Denial – We may pretend that the loved one is still alive but on vacation or a business trip.
  3. Anger – We can have a general feeling of frustration and a low tolerance for others. We can also be angry at the doctors, the virus, the person who died, or God. Work through it; you can heal.
  4. Bargaining – We may try to find a way to reverse the loss. We may say to ourselves, “If I am good every day, maybe I can see you one more time” or “If only…” or “what if…” This stage offers a feeling of control and hope.
  5. Depression – This is the stage we often associate with grief. Depression is an appropriate and necessary stage of having symptoms of deep sadness, lethargy, changes in sleep, poor concentration, feeling of failure, and loneliness.
    • Some people get stuck in this stage and need additional support from a therapist. Please seek help. Also, if you are struggling with suicidal thoughts, seek help immediately. Call the suicide prevention hotline.
  6. Testing – We are starting to slowly shift out of depression by creating a new normal. We begin to try new routines, allow ourselves to laugh, and to determine how it feels to be this new version of ourselves without the loved one.
  7. Acceptance – We begin to start allowing ourselves to adjust to our new identity without that person. We have developed new skills, new routines, and new expectations of ourselves. May still have bad days, but we are on our way to feeling more confident in our new lives.

Related: 10 Best Books on Understanding Death and Dying

There is no timeline for how long grief will last. Everyone grieves at different rates, and none of these timelines are to be judged. We may find ourselves grieving various losses at different paces. However, one rule of thumb is that it takes about two years. The despair should gradually improve throughout that time.

Why two years? Because the first year is to create new traditions without that person, figure out new ways of celebrating holidays, and memorialize special days that the loved one shared. In the second year, we are likely to have adjusted to the new holiday tradition, and we don’t have to make that decision again.

With that said, there will continue to be “mini-grieving” periods even after we have already accepted the loss. For instance, a child will grieve the loss of a parent during milestones that the loved one would have normally attended (such as prom, graduation, wedding, the birth of a child, etc.). These should be brief.

Rhonda Mattox, MD

Rhonda Mattox

Psychiatrist | Former Facilitator of Grief Support Group | Author of Upcoming Memoir, “God Heard My Cry & Changed My Tune

As a psychiatrist for nearly two decades and former facilitator of a grief support group, I was sometimes ultra surprised at some of the stuff that participants heard from others in their attempts to support grieving people.

I learned a lot, and I have included several options below to choose from:

“You don’t have to be “strong” for anyone.”

Tears don’t mean that you are breaking down and they are not a symbol of weakness. They are an indicator that you are not a robot. You are mortal, and you are having a human response to this tragic loss.

“Don’t overthink or label what you “should” be feeling.”

After the death of someone you love, your emotions may run the gamut. One moment, you find yourself going through the valley of the shadow of death and crying uncontrollably. Then another, you’re laughing — and feeling guilty for laughing.

Don’t overthink or label what you “should” be feeling. Just feel. Give yourself guiltless permission to feel however you are feeling and experience whatever you are feeling without labels or judgment.

“Hang in there and just take it breath by breath.”

I can’t wipe all of your tears away, but I suspect that this season of snotty nose and tearful eyes shall pass eventually, like kidney stones. But it shall pass.

Don’t give up.

Hang in there and just take it breath by breath. In the days leading up to the funeral and at the funeral, the counsel to take it day by day may not be enough. You may have to dial it back and take it moment by moment or breath by breath to make it through the ceremony.

“Let your loved ones stumble and don’t kick them in the throat.”

There may be nothing that I can say that will legitimately make you feel better, so I’m just going to try to sit here and be available for you if you need me.

Now everyone won’t be wise enough to hush. But most of them are not knuckleheads trying to get a rise out of you. A lot of us won’t know what to say to comfort you. In an effort to not put their feet in their mouth, they may avoid you because they don’t want to say the wrong thing. Try not to hold that against them.

Some are going to say the “wrongest” of things trying to comfort you, and then you may feel like kicking them in the throat, especially if they say:

  • “He’s in a better place.”
  • “God knows best.”
  • “This was the will of God.”

Don’t do that either!

After the fortieth person asks you, “How you doing?” and you are tempted to say, “How the bleep do you think I’m doing?” don’t say it. Just acknowledge the question with “As well as can be expected.” Then move on before you do something you regret when you see it go viral on tiktok or Instagram.

Just keep reminding yourself that “They mean well. They just really suck at death.”

Offer concrete options of what you are willing to do

Your brain may be puddy right now. You may not be able to string two intelligent thoughts together. So I’m going to offer you some options for things you might need from me.

  • “Let me know if you want me to back off or be present.”
  • “I can do the dishes, or I can drop off paperware.”
  • “I can take the kids with me for an afternoon outing, or I can take them outside, and we can camp on your porch tonight.”
  • “I can bring chicken for the family or give you a gift card.”
  • “I will hold your hand every step of the way if you want me to, or I will back off and send you text messages and have food dropped off.”

You tell me what you need now.

I know you might change your mind. Don’t worry about hurting my feelings if you decide you don’t feel like being bothered.

“I’m going to phone you to check in pretty frequently so that you know that you aren’t in this alone”

Consider recording an informative phone message or posting an informative Facebook post so that you don’t have to continue to say the same thing over and over. Let people know that you won’t be returning calls/texts at this time.

That said, I’m going to phone you to check in pretty frequently so that you know that you aren’t in this alone. You don’t have to answer every time. But at least once a week, try to send me an emoji or a response, so I know you are still alive, and I’m not tempted to send the police to do a wellness check on you.

“Put the oxygen mask on yourself”

Pay attention to your body. If someone is making you anxious, excuse yourself. It’s not your job to make others feel better. It’s your responsibility to get through this day second by second, breath by breath.

What not to say

Don’t tell people about your losses without asking permission to share. They may not have the bandwidth to handle your sad story.

Don’t tell them “It’s for the best” even if you think it is. Don’t render an opinion about where they may land in the afterlife based on how they died (suicide, in the act of committing a crime, etc.)

Nekita Chatlani

Nekita Chatlani

Student of Psychology | Student Volunteer, Bit of Wellness

Be empathetic and put an effort to understand the person experiencing the loss

What to say:

  • Giving your condolence –
    • “My condolence to you and your family”
    • “I am very sorry for the loss you are experiencing.”
  • Checking up on them“How are you feeling? Would you like to talk about it?” Try and understand what they are feeling but do not make assumptions about it. You may have never been in a situation like theirs. They may be experiencing grief from the loss of a very close family member, or they may have been caretakers or distant relatives. You may not be aware of their relationship with the deceased or what they presently share with the bereaved.
  • Recognize the deceased and the bereaved – Highlight the efforts and the relationship by personalizing what you say.
    • “I am very sorry for your loss, (name). (Name of the deceased) was a very understanding colleague, he/she/they helped me a lot when I was a trainee/ I had heard a lot about his/her/their proactiveness from my colleagues. Please let me know if I can help you in any way. You already have my number.”
  • Only provide advice if asked for. Unsolicited advice may do more harm than good.

Gauging the situation

One of the key understandings you can have is that every individual is different. What you say will vary from what someone else does, and what response you get from the person experiencing the loss will also vary.

Sharing incidents of your loss may help the other person to open up to you, share their difficulties with you, if not verbally, then symbolically. However, another person may feel more distressed by listening to your painful experiences.

How do you know what to say at what time? Be alert about the different cues in the environment.

  • The body language of the other person
  • Their facial expressions
  • Changes in the voice

Related: What to Say and What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving

Sometimes it’s better to let the conversation flow—you will know the right thing to say. If you are close to the person, then you probably know from experience what is comforting and discomforting for them. If they feel comforted by just your presence, you do not have to force conversation.

How to say

How to say is as important as what to say. What you say will hold no meaning or will not communicate your true intentions to the other person unless the pitch of your voice, inflection, tone, body language, and facial expression also convey the same meaning.

Related: Why is Body Language Important?

Knowledge of these features can also help you to understand the other person better.

Facial expressions and body language – Expressions that usually convey feelings of concern and sadness are raised inner corners of the eyebrows or they may be drawn together, the eyes and corners of the lips are cast down, lips may tremble, indicating an urge to cry or even appear as a pout. Some facial expressions may show that the other person is trying to control their emotions.

News of death can also elicit anger marked by lowered eyebrows that may be drawn together, tensed eyelids, and one may have a hard look on their face.

Sadness and dullness are indicated by a slumped posture and slowed movements. Keeping your body posture open such that you are facing the other person and arms are widened shows attentiveness and a desire to listen to the other person.

Let the person know through your gestures that you are listening:

  • Nod your head
  • Make eye contact
  • Hum to show understanding
  • Do not fidget
  • Do not appear distracted
  • Do not look elsewhere.

If you are chatting via text message:

  • Stay online
  • Use appropriate punctuations and words to convey your intentions to them
  • Do not leave them on read
  • Do not write filler messages
  • Do not use emojis

Pitch, tone, inflection – Using a softer tone and changing the pitch of your voice when putting forth a question, statement, or an exclamation are effective ways to show your concern.

Being empathetic and putting an effort to understand the person experiencing the loss, their thoughts, and their emotions will be the most helpful skill or characteristic in a situation like this and several other experiences in life.

Alison Johnston

Alison Johnston

CEO and Co-Founder, Ever Loved

Show your support

It can be difficult to find the right word when someone you know is grieving. Stick to words of comfort that highlight your support for them and acknowledge the difficulty of their loss without making assumptions about their specific feelings.

A great example would be, “I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m here for you and sending my love your way.”

Related: What to Say When Someone Says Sorry for Your Loss

Offer concrete ways you’d like to help

It can be difficult for folks who’ve just lost someone or who have just attended a funeral to know exactly what it is they’re in need of, even if they’re in need of a lot of help. If you want to support them, offer up the specific way in which you’d like to help them.

Some examples include:

  • “I’d be happy to watch the kids for you so that you can take some time to yourself. I’m free any of the next four nights; let me know what works best for you, and I’ll be there.”
  • “Can I cook a few meals for your family, so you can focus on spending time with them?”
  • “I purchased you a house cleaning service, so you have one less thing to worry about. Let me know what date is best for you.”

Emma Payne

Emma Payne

Founder & CEO, Grief Coach

Ask about the person who’s died; sharing stories can be healing

When someone you care about is attending a funeral, it’s a great idea to check in with them to see if they are getting the support they need.

Often, amid all the logistics and travel and worrying about sending flowers and supporting the grieving family, your loved one may not have had time to think about how they are doing or focusing on their own grief.

Giving grieving people an opportunity to talk about the person who’s died can be a real gift.

If you’re not sure how to get started, maybe these suggestions can help:

  • “What was something you treasured about John?”
  • “How long have you known Susan? I’d love to hear more about her after the funeral if you’d like to share.”
  • “Will there be people at the funeral who you haven’t seen for a while? How do you feel about that?”

Yocheved Golani

Yocheved Golani

Content Provider Specializing in Medical and Mental Health Topics | Editor, E-Counseling

Mention a memory of how the person added value to the deceased’s life or ask for one

Whenever a person faces saddening circumstances, the best thing to do is focus on a favorable future and the future itself. People have a tendency to respond negatively to hardships. It takes effort to think beyond them.

Motivate the person going to a funeral with upbeat ideas, and coax them to take can-do actions that leave them feeling happier, fulfilled, and looking forward to tomorrow, even to the next hour.

Firing up a person’s imagination with “uptalk” can help them to cope with inner pain.

Ask the person to stand a bit straighter, brush their hair a bit, or straighten their clothing. Smile as you speak, and smile harder when they follow your suggestions. Indulge in a short discussion about what they’re looking forward to, something that they’re proud of, and share a soothing insight or story. This fills your listener’s mind with positivity.

Mention a memory of how the person added value to the deceased’s life, or ask for one. Ask them to share details about that input.

  • Praise your listener for being so caring.
  • Thank them for speaking with you, too.
  • Keep up the positive rapport, and let your listener know that the conversation will continue after the funeral.

They now have a more pleasant perspective about the death and reason to believe that life will continue in a more pleasant fashion in the foreseeable future. Until then, they can savor the pleasant conversation that you shared before the funeral instead of dwelling on sadness. This is a win-win situation for all concerned.

Rev. Martin Lauzerne Dunne III, CPA

Martin Dunne

Parochial Vicar | Author, “What Could a Priest Know About Marriage?

“No one is meant to go through this alone, and I’ll be honored to help you from this moment forward.”

In contemporary society, funerals have never been more overwhelming. For decades, the diminishment of involvement in organized religion and the denial of our mortality has been exasperated in the worst way by the tragedies of the last 16 months.

Therefore a person attending the funeral of a loved one is overwhelmed to a degree unprecedented by previous generations. Because they are more sensitive at this time than any other time of their lives, what you say can either pivot them to either a destructive pit of despair or a new chapter of life where each moment will be treasured to the max.

What is said will certainly vary given who you are speaking to and the circumstances which led to the funeral (therefore the impossibility of have two similar situations ever).

Certainly, there are common statements to this effect (you have to be brief because the person is being pulled in multiple directions by multiple empathetic people in a frenzy of activity surrounding the funeral):

“I cannot express how sorry I am. I realize things are overwhelming but rest assured of my prayers and being here for you. I know things are crazier than ever right now. With everything going on, you haven’t really had a chance to really process anything. I’ll always be here for you. If I don’t hear from you shortly after the funeral, I’ll be reaching out to you. No one is meant to go through this alone, and I’ll be honored to help you from this moment forward because I love you.”

Eric J. Nisall

Eric Nisall

Accountant and Founder, Understand Finances | Writer | Speaker

“Thank you for allowing us to say goodbye.”

Sometimes the best thing to say is the simplest:

  • “I’m sorry for your loss.”
  • “I’m sure the family will appreciate you attending.”

If you are speaking to the people hosting the event (the family), something as simple as “thank you for allowing us to say goodbye” or “if there’s anything you need, please let me/us know.” A lot of people try to be the funny one or the one to say what they think is the perfect thing, but in some situations, that just doesn’t turn out well.

It is also important to be able to read the person or room.

Having had funerals for my grandmother and brother in March and July of 2020, respectively, I know that people react differently. Some of my family couldn’t even speak at the funeral. Others like myself were able to communicate just fine. This even applies to friends of the family—not everyone is going to want to have in-depth conversations.

Nicole Graham

Nicole Graham

Lifestyle and Relationship Coach, Womenio

“I’ll be up late tonight, and I’m leaving my phone on”

As a relationship coach, I constantly tell my clients to console their grieving family members. “I’ll be up late tonight, and I’m leaving my phone on,” is one of the things I train them to say. Also, “I’m here for you if you need someone to talk to after the funeral.”

When you lose a loved one, you typically feel numb. It can take several days for the death of a loved one to sink in and feel real. The funeral may bring your grief to the surface and reveal its true depths.

If you need to connect and process these sentiments after the service, let your loved one or friend know you’re available to help. You also don’t have to wait for your friend to contact you. Send a text or call a few hours after the service to let your friend know you were there.

Brian C. Waters, CFSP

Brian Waters

Funeral Director & Embalmer | Producer & Co-host, Undertaking: The Podcast

For those going to a funeral, first and foremost, thank you. Thank you on behalf of all the families I’ve served in the past and will serve in the future. As a society, we must understand that funerals are a rite and not a right.

An announcement of services in an obituary is an open invitation to those that knew the deceased or the family to come, pay their respects, and support their family.

The best possible thing one can do is to simply go.

As a society, we worry about what to wear to the funeral and the perfect thing to say, but those things aren’t what’s important. What’s important is you—whether you’re a family member, a friend, or just even an acquaintance—your presence matters more than you’ll ever know.

It’s hard to visualize or instantly see the peace and comfort you lend with your presence alone, but I promise you, it’s there. It’s even hard for a funeral director like me to put it into words.

I mentioned before that a funeral is a rite and not a right. As friends or even distant relatives, we do not have a right to be a part of another’s funeral. It’s simply a privilege and one we should take to heart when we see that the family is holding public services. We should be honored that we’re invited to attend, and we should.

There are so many ways people think they’re supporting a family, texts, emails, phone calls, funeral home tribute walls, or live-streaming services, but these simply are ways to keep us apart. After a year of COVID, when we’re told we cannot mourn together, it’s more obvious now than ever. We must take the opportunity to support our neighbors. Simply go.

I fear with all this technology that we may feel like we’re helping, but that may not be the case. For example, I interviewed Peter, a funeral director in New York who shared a story of a father who lost a son. This father told Peter, “I think we need to move the funeral. I’ve had 700 people connect on Facebook.”

Ten minutes before the funeral, the father walked up to Peter with tears in his eyes and said, “I don’t get it. Where is everyone?”

Will that father ever hold services for another loved one? We don’t know. If we as a community stop showing up, eventually, that funeral rite will not be held, and people will grieve at home. Why bother? Why spend the money when all you’ll get is a text?

So to those considering going — thank you. From the bottom of one funeral director’s heart, thank you. Your presence isn’t for the deceased or me; it’s for those that are left behind. Just know, you’ve done a very selfless and noble thing just by going to the funeral.

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