When others experience individuals in pain and suffering, they many time do not know what to say. Some remain silent and distant due to the discomfort it may bring them, or inability to express, while others may seek to comfort. Unfortunately, many good intentioned individuals who look to offer help do more damage in the words they say. Many do not understand the process of grief or experienced loss and the words they say can make the grief process worst. Unlike Grief Counselors who are trained in grief and loss counseling, these individuals usually say the wrong thing at the wrong time. Understanding grief can help individuals in how to approach the bereaved and how to speak or not speak to a individual experiencing trauma. It is an important life skill that can make all the difference for a suffering friend or colleague.
The article, “I Lost My Dad. These Are The 7 Words I Wish I’d Never Been Told At His Funeral.” by Carly Midgley relates her own experience with the death of her father. She too experienced the many well wishes of others at the funeral but many of the words at times did not help but made it more difficult for her. The article discusses on why certain things that seem innocent are not the best phrases or condolences for those experiencing a loss and instead encourages better ways to help the bereaved. Midgley states,
“But the people who surrounded me seemed as helpless as I was, uncertain how to proceed regardless of whether they’d known him. Sometimes, their attempts at comfort made a difference: A walk around the funeral home with a friend who let me talk as long as I wanted, or a family friend sharing what they remembered of my father’s youth, helped pull me to the surface of my grief just long enough to breathe. Other times, however, the people I spoke to were so filled with awkwardness about death, or with eagerness to fix it for me, that the exchanges turned prescriptive:”
“I Lost My Dad. These Are The 7 Words I Wish I’d Never Been Told At His Funeral”. Carly Midgley. January 19th, 2023. Yahoo News.
To review the entire article, please click here
Obviously well intentioned individuals will reach out at a funeral to help the suffering family with words of advice or condolences. Many times, these words are not the right thing to say. Some of this stems from the types of individuals and their own experience with grief. Some may seem aloof or distant due to the discomfort of death and discussing it or even seeing other people be emotional. Others may be still working on their own grief and attempt to offer advice that has helped themselves. Others may be trying to say the perfect thing in an attempt to fix and heal the bereaved.
When helping the bereaved, it is important to have a strong understanding of the connection and gravity of the loss. It is important to only offer more words if requested regarding one’s own experiences and to keep it simple. One cannot fix the loss but one can offer condolence and sometimes not even a word but if appropriate a hug or a listening ear.
Phrases to Avoid at a Funeral
The biggest issues occur when one attempts to know it all or look to fix the loss on the spot. Phrases that compare the loss or speak of knowing how it feels need to be avoided. The time is not about one’s experience but the person grieving. Furthermore, grief is unique, the person may be experiencing the same type of loss very differently so one does not truly know how one feels. It is best to only offer comparative stories of loss if requested.
Other phrases start with the words “at least”. While well intentioned, they attempt to lessen the loss but the loss itself is something the person is experiencing. While it may be receptive to some ears, it may upset others who only know the objective reality that their loved one is gone. So if someone died abruptly, adding the phrase that at least he did not suffer is not conducive to helping the situation. Or at least, his or her suffering is now at end. While this phrase can be utilized carefully depending on the situation, it can become more painful to parents who lost a child.
Phrases that also put the deceased in a better place should be avoided. The bereaved only want their loved one them not somewhere else. So while opening a phrase with “at least she is in a better place” does not equate to lessening the pain for many. It does not remove the current absence. Furthermore many times, individuals may be angry with God and not ready to discuss the afterlife. Hence it is good to avoid this phrase.
Another phrase to avoid features a judgement upon how one will feel. A phrase that opens with you will be OK or you will get over this in time should be completely avoided. It is a large mistake to attempt to dictate how one will feel or tell someone who is currently grieving that it will be OK. The present moment needs to be respected.
An equally worst thing to say is that it could be worst. For the bereaved it is already horrible. The loss of a loved one cannot be worst or compared to other losses. The loss itself must be respected for what it is and not lessened, challenged, or compared.
In addition, many individuals offer help, but fail to realize many do not have the energy to do something or even ask. Instead of offering, do. Instead of waiting for a call, call. Many are left after the funeral with nothing. The funeral to those more distant is a mere ceremony, but for those missing their loved ones, it is the first step in a long process of grieving. The funeral is the start not the end. So it is important to check on friends and ask them if they are OK or how they feel. Listening and allowing others to vent is a big thing.
Things to Say
In contrast, focus on the loss itself. He or she will be missed or I am sorry for your loss are very comforting, direct, acknowledging and non judgmental. They do not take away from the person or the sorrow of the present.
Many people at funerals offer condolences the wrong way. This is due to their own discomfort with death, lack of understanding grieving or attempts to fix the bereaved. Sojourning and listening and respecting the loss for its own is critical to helping people during grief and loss. When individual’s feelings are acknowledged and respected in the moment, then individuals can grieve in a healthy fashion.
Please also review AIHCP’s Grief Counseling Certification. The program trains qualified professionals to become certified Grief Counselors who have the understanding and training to properly address grief and help individuals process it. The program is online and independent study and open to qualified professionals seeking a four year certification. Please review the program and see if it meets your academic and professional goals.
“What to Say (and What Not to Say) to Someone Who’s Grieving”. David Pogue. February 14th, 2019. New York Times. Access here
“THE MOURNER’S BILL OF RIGHTS”. Alan Wolfelt. December 21st, 2013. TAPS. Access here
“7 Things to Not Say at a Funeral” Aaron Earl. May 24th, 2018. Lifeway Research. Access here
“What to Say (and Not Say) to Someone Who’s Grieving”. Taneasha White. September 23rd, 2021. PsychCentral. Access here