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What to Say (and What NOT to Say) at a Funeral

As a hospice and palliative medicine physician, I have been with families in their time of grief—at the hospital, at funerals (yes, I attend many), in their homes, at memorial services, wakes, and celebrations of life.

I don’t know what the etiquette books say, but I do have an opinion about the best ways to convey your caring for grieving friends and family. Let me share my thoughts.

As difficult as it is to say something, here are the kinds of inadvertently hurtful comments that you should never share with the grieving:

· You’re young, you’ll get over it, and you’ll meet someone else.

· She is now at peace, she is looking down on us, and her suffering is over.

· Be strong, be tough, be an inspiration to everyone else. And by all means do not cry.

· The Lord only takes the most beautiful flowers from the garden and brings those flowers home with him.

· He went quickly; at least he did not suffer.

· I know exactly how you feel. When my husband died, I went through the same experience.

· How are things going? Are you okay? Are you holding up? Be a role model for everyone. Do not fall apart.

· You just have to pull yourself together, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and just get out there. No one is going to do it for you. You can do this. Make us all proud.

· Just deal with it. Just like I did. Sooner or later, you are going to feel a lot better. But do not start dating right away.

Another source of unbelievable misinformation and callousness is to read some of the sympathy cards in the marketplace. I find it incomprehensible that some human being actually wrote these missives that can be a source of tremendous pain to those going through the fog of mourning, grief, and bereavement.

So what can you do and what can you say to offer gestures and comments of comfort and peace during times of unfathomable pain for those who have lost a loved one? There is no quick fix, no simple formula, but a gesture of universal consolation is to simply show up.

You do not have to say anything. Just be present and engaged with the suffering family members. Amplify your compassion with an appropriate gesture: a hug, a firm handshake, a touch on the shoulder, but be respectful of the cultural nuances and subtleties of that particular culture.

When you feel you should say something, be guided by these phrases that can bring some measure of comfort, whether in person or in a blank card (create your own Hallmark moment):

· I am sorry for your loss. Quite simply this acknowledges that you recognize the pain of the experience.

· Your mother was a remarkable example of courage. Or Your husband was always optimistic in the face of some difficult times. Or No matter how sick or lousy your husband felt, he always made me laugh. He was a very funny guy in the face of some very difficult situations. In this way you recognize the deceased person.

· I cannot imagine what this has been like for you and your family. You were a rock, you were a beacon of hope.

· You went that extra mile of love and support. If it were not for your presence, this illness would’ve been far more tragic.

· You in the family left no stone unturned. You explored every reasonable option on your mother’s behalf. No looking back.

At the end of the day, when the grieving process slowly fades and life resumes a new normal, almost none of the family members and friends will remember what was said, but they certainly will remember the fact that you showed up in person or with a brief written acknowledgment of their loss during one of the most vulnerable and difficult times during anyone’s life.

Edward T. Creagan, MD, FAAHPM, a cancer specialist, is the first Mayo Clinic doctor board certified in hospice and palliative medicine. His new book, Farewell: Vital End-of-Life Questions and Candid Answers, is about navigating those precious last days, at the bedside, and saying farewell with hope, love, and compassion.

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1 Comment

Juliana Green
Juliana Green
Sep 25, 2021

Thank you

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