Funeral Etiquette: What to Say When Someone Dies

It’s the news no one wants to hear: Someone you care about has lost a loved one. When you know the person who is grieving, but don’t know their loved one well (if at all), it can be especially difficult to decide what to say. Later, when supporting the person during and after the visitation, funeral or memorial service, it can also be tough to know how to express your sympathy.

Everyone reacts differently to the death of a loved one, and there’s no such thing as a “perfect” response to help a person who is grieving. With that in mind, however, there are a few dos and don’ts that can be helpful when considering what to say when someone dies.

When You Hear the News

  • Do express your condolences sincerely and let the person know you are thinking of them. When you’re at a loss for words, keeping your response simple and genuine (e.g. “I’m sorry for your loss – please know that I’m here for you.”) is the best approach.

  • Don’t immediately begin asking questions about details they may not even know yet. Listen first, giving the person time to share what they are comfortable telling you in their own time.

When Offering to Help

  • Do offer specific and practical ideas for how you’re willing to help. These gestures may include providing transportation, preparing meals or caring for their home or pets.

  • Don’t make assumptions about what you think will be helpful for the person. Well-meaning actions can sometimes unintentionally add stress and complexity to an already difficult time – when in doubt, ask first.

At the Visitation, Funeral or Memorial Service

  • Do visit with the person you know and their family members to share your condolences and support. Seeing familiar and friendly faces at visitations, funerals and memorial services can be even more meaningful than you may realize.

  • Don’t monopolize the conversation when visiting one-on-one with the family. If they have many people to talk to, and it may be best to save longer conversations for another time.

When Following Up

  • Do follow up with the person after the funeral or memorial services to let them know you’re thinking about them. A simple message or card can be a welcome gesture and allows the person time to respond when they are ready.

  • Don’t avoid the topic when seeing the person again for the first time after a funeral or memorial service. Express your condolences, and then take the person’s lead on whether or not they would like to continue talking about their loved one.

Consider what you know about the person who has experienced the loss, and your relationship with that person, when deciding how to express your sympathy. A thoughtful and sincere approach can help the person know that you’re available to support them – if and when they need it.

What words and expressions of sympathy have provided comfort when you experienced a loss? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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