What to say at a funeral
Grief and bereavement expert Catherine Betley guides us through the things you should and shouldn’t say at a funeral and explains how to speak to someone who has experienced a significant loss without upsetting or offending them.
It is often difficult to know what to say to someone who has experienced a significant loss. We might find ourselves wondering what we could say that might help the bereaved person, but also worrying that what we say could upset or offend them.
We can be left feeling powerless or inadequate because although we would love to help, sometimes our words of comfort do not seem enough in the circumstances. The important thing to remember is that saying something is almost always better than saying nothing, especially if what you say is well intended and meant sincerely.
What to say to someone before a funeral
After a death has occurred, it is important to acknowledge that loss when speaking with the bereaved person. We may feel awkward ‘bringing it up’ before the funeral, but remember, you are not reminding them of their grief. You are giving them permission to be open about their feelings with you, if they choose to do so. You may choose to send a card, which allows for a few well-chosen words, but a phone call or brief visit are often very much appreciated too.
Things to say at a funeral service
If you are attending a funeral service, it is appropriate to offer your sympathy to the family. If you don’t know them very well, a simple ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is fine, although it is often better if you can say something about the person who has died, for example ‘I’m so sorry that you’ve lost your Dad (his name), he was a lovely man and I know we’ll miss him very much.’ Saying something personal that kindly remembers the person who has died and what they meant to you is usually appreciated.
What to say to someone after a funeral
After a funeral, it is often the kind words of comfort from the people who attended that the family remembers for a long time.
Sometimes we are truly lost for words and cannot bring ourselves to say something personal because we fear that we may break down or upset the bereaved person. When this happens, you may want to say something like ‘I don’t know what to say or how best to help you, but I really wish I did’. This is often a very honest way of telling people how we feel and reassures the bereaved person that you really care and will be there for them.
Things you should not say at a funeral
There are, however, some things that should not be said at a funeral. It is advisable to avoid platitudes such as ‘well, s/he had a good life’ or ‘they’re in a better place now’. We want to try to recognise a bereaved person’s grief, not to minimise or trivialise it. It may well be that the person who has died lived a long, happy and meaningful life, but to those left behind (for example a bereaved husband whose wife of 50 years has died), the length of the person’s life could never have been long enough and the impact of the bereavement on them cannot and should not be minimised.
Even if you have suffered a similar loss, it is important not to say things like ‘I know how you feel’. The fact is, you don’t. You can only know how you felt when you were bereaved, you should not assume that other people feel the same way. By saying things like ‘I know how you feel’, you shift the focus of attention from their feelings to yours. There may come a time when you can share helpful tips about how you felt when someone died and what helped you, but it is rarely the right time to have these conversations at a funeral.
How to help someone who is grieving
The other thing that people often say at a funeral is ‘if you need anything, just let me know’. While this is usually well-meaning, it does place the responsibility for asking for help onto the bereaved person. If you want to help, be specific in your offer. How exactly you can help will of course depend on the individual.
Grief can be exhausting and the bereaved person may appreciate some relief from daily tasks e.g. cooking, childcare and shopping. You may like to offer to help them with paperwork, as there can be a lot to sort through after a death and this can feel overwhelming. Practical assistance like this can be a good way of demonstrating that you are there for them. Actions very often speak louder than words and when the funeral is over, and for a long time afterwards, bereaved people may need and appreciate both practical help and emotional support.
Catherine Betley, Managing Director, Professional Help Limited & GriefChat®
Catherine has over 20 years experience of managing counselling and therapy organisations, starting and developing new projects and ventures and delivering training and support to a huge range of organisations.
She has worked in business and across the voluntary and community sector at local, regional and national levels, including a serving as Director of Services for Cruse Bereavement Care, the world’s largest bereavement charity.
Catherine is currently Managing Director of Professional Help Limited, which delivers confidential and impartial support and counselling including employee support, critical incident response and bereavement counselling. In 2017, Catherine set up GriefChat® which enables bereaved people to chat instantly online to a qualified bereavement counsellor. GriefChat won the ‘Best Bereavement Support Website’ category at the 2018 Good Funeral Awards.
We know that no-one can understand exactly what your loss feels like to you. But we do understand that it’s sometimes easier to talk to someone outside of your friends and family about grief and the impact bereavement has on your life. This is why we offer the GriefChat service.
GriefChat was created by bereavement experts and allows you to chat directly to a specially trained bereavement counsellor. GriefChat counsellors are experienced in supporting bereaved people and will listen to your story, explore how your grief is affecting you and help you to find any additional support you might need.
Dignity provides free access to the GriefChat service. You can use it here.