First, let us say that there is no — right vs. wrong — when it comes to comforting the grieving. Perhaps it is better to think in terms of appropriate vs. inappropriate, or thoughtful vs. thoughtless. When you’re not sure what to do, the best course of action is always the Golden Rule — treat others the way you wish to be treated.
When you hear of the death of a friend or acquaintance, your first thought may be to help. Your second thought may be to avoid them, in fear of adding to their burden or saying or doing the wrong thing. Both feelings are normal and can be put to good use.
It is important to visit the grieving family, whether in their home or during visitation hours at the funeral home. It comforts them and reassures them that life will go on. You can learn about the hours of visitation from the newspaper or online obituary, or by calling the funeral home.
If you wish, you may offer help with food preparation or childcare. Sometimes these gestures are also appreciated in the days and weeks following the funeral.
In your own words, say that you’re sorry for their loss, and maybe something kind about the person who has died. A short, fond memory is often appreciated. If words fail you, just your presence and a warm hug will be enough. It is usually not appropriate to inquire about the cause of death.
You might think that mentioning the person who has died will make the family members feel worse, but this is not the case. A warm mention of their name will be a comfort.
If you were a friend of the deceased, but not known to the family, introduce yourself and your connection. “I am Jill Smith. I worked with your mother for 15 years and always appreciated her sunny smile.”
If you find yourself becoming extremely distraught in your own grief, it is gracious to excuse yourself from the room, so you don’t add to the strain on the family.
Be sure to sign the register book. It will mean a lot to the family later on, when they are better able to reflect on the occasion. It is proper to list your affiliation with the deceased, if you are unknown to the family.
“I will really miss John. He was a fine person.”
“Please give my sympathy to your father.”
“Thank you for coming.”
“John spoke of you often.”
“It’s good to see how many people cared for her.”
“Please come visit us soon.”
In earlier times, black dress was required. Today, funeral dress codes have relaxed a bit. So black clothing is not inappropriate, but it is not necessary.
Sending flowers is a universally accepted way of expressing condolences, because they express a feeling of life and beauty. Often the family will publish their preferences regarding flowers in the obituary. You can send flowers prior to the funeral, or to the family residence at any time. Your florist will know what is appropriate.
If the family requests gifts be made to a charity (this will usually be mentioned in the obituary), you can make a donation in the deceased person’s name. The charity will then notify the family that a gift has been made in their loved one’s name.
A heartfelt note of sympathy sent to the family’s home is always appreciated. This is especially important if you aren’t able to attend the funeral.
If the family has arranged for an open casket, it is customary, but not mandatory, to view the deceased. If you wish, you can spend a short moment in silent prayer, then move on through the receiving line to greet the family. If you are uncertain of the customs or rituals, watch what the people in line before you do. It is always safe to be less demonstrative, but never more.
It is usually not necessary to stay for the entire visitation. If you leave early, be sure to slip out quietly. Don’t leave while prayers are being offered.
Not every funeral is the same. They differ depending on the religious and personal beliefs of each family. They can be held at a funeral home, church, or even the deceased’s home. Regardless of the location, the rules of behavior are similar.
Come on time or a few minutes early, enter quietly, and be seated. The first few rows are reserved for close family members, but you can sit right behind them for support and comfort.
A member of the clergy will probably conduct the ceremony, which may include an invitation to the congregation to offer an anecdote or eulogy. If you wish to participate with a short thought, stand up and speak loudly and clearly.
A private funeral is closed to the public, so it is inappropriate to attend unless you have been personally invited by the family. However, you can still call or send your condolences.
This question calls for two important considerations: how close was your relationship with the deceased, and how comfortable (or uncomfortable) is your current relationship with the deceased’s family. A funeral is a time for grace and dignity, a time to put the concerns of others ahead of your own. Whatever you do, be sure not to offend or cause added strain to the family of the deceased. If you are on good terms with the family and know you will be welcome, then by all means attend the funeral.
Serving as a pallbearer is a privilege. You will be asked to help carry the casket, so dress appropriately. The funeral director will give you specific instructions as to what to do and when.
Sometimes the family of the deceased will select people to serve as honorary pallbearers. Honorary pallbearers do not actually carry the casket, but are merely asked to be in attendance. Here, also, the funeral director will let you know what your responsibilities are.
When the service concludes, leave promptly with the rest of the mourners. Wait in your car if you wish to join the procession to the cemetery.
The funeral director will probably ask you, before the funeral, if you wish to be in the procession. If you choose to do so, he or she may affix a flag or emblem to your car, and direct you to your place in line when the procession begins. Keep your headlights on, and follow the car in front of you as closely as safety allows. Try not to get separated from the car ahead. Proceed with caution at intersections. Remember to turn your headlights off when you arrive at the cemetery. After the burial, people disburse separately, without forming a procession back to the funeral home, church, or reception hall.
At the conclusion of the funeral and/or the burial the funeral director will usually announce the family’s wishes. Very often there is a light luncheon at a church or hall which provides everyone a chance to relax, visit with out-of-town relatives, and express sympathy once again. It is at this type of gathering that, to dispel the overwhelming sadness, some good, perhaps even humorous, stories about the deceased can be shared.
An email is only appropriate if you are not well known to the family, such as a former neighbor or business associate.
Sympathy cards, written from the heart, are always welcome and cherished.
Memorial gifts in the name of the deceased are always appropriate. Remember to give the deceased’s family name and address to the charity, so the gift can be acknowledged. You may mention your gift in a sympathy card, but don’t give specifics about the amount.
Especially if you live out-of-town, it is kind to telephone the family as soon as possible to offer your sympathy. Since others will also be trying to call, keep your call brief.
Food is always welcome, especially main-dish meals that can be re-heated easily. It is a good idea to call ahead and see what meals would be appreciated, to avoid duplication. Either send your dish in a disposable container or be sure it is clearly marked with your name.
Saying thank you is important, both verbally and in writing. Without putting too much pressure on yourself, be sure to acknowledge contributions, gifts of food, thoughtful acts, and services as quickly as possible. Your funeral director can provide you with printed acknowledgement cards. A short personal note is all that is required: “Thank you for the dinner you provided for our family. We really appreciate your kindness.” Perhaps a friend can help you gather the names and addresses and prepare the envelopes.
There are two ways to handle this situation. If you attended the visitation or funeral, it is enough to greet them warmly and ask how they are doing. If this is the first time you’ve seen them since the death, it is usually best just to say you understand this is a difficult time for them.
Remain a faithful friend. Don’t avoid the family because you fear mentioning the deceased will cause pain. They are living with the loss every day, and will probably welcome hearing their loved one’s name spoken aloud. Try to write or call regularly and include them in your social plans. When they are ready to join you, they will let you know. Remembering them on special occasions during the first year following the death, such as anniversaries and birthdays, is helpful, as those are tender and difficult milestones.