What to Say at a Funeral
When my younger brother died of a heroin overdose at 43, it was the worst thing that had ever happened to my parents and
"Small kindnesses given by our extended family and friends helped my family and I endure the days right after my brother's death."
My memories from that time aren't the sharpest — self-preservation, I suppose — so I don't remember a lot of miscues from that time, people doing or saying things that were meant to soothe but hurt instead, but as I was researching funeral etiquette for an article on this site, I discovered there are pretty much universal blunders people make when interacting with the bereaved. There are certain things said over and over again that simply should not be uttered aloud. Most of them, I soon realized, had actually been said to me, at one time or another. I never got angry, no matter how outrageous some of the comments or questions were. I was so overwhelmed by sadness there was no room left for anything else. Now? Now I wonder how some people could be so callous. For example:
WHAT NOT TO SAY
1. "WHO'S INHERITING [INSERT DECEASED'S VALUABLE POSSESSION]?"
The worst question anyone posed to me came via Facebook messenger, from a "friend" of my brother's, a girl so cold, so clueless I wonder now if she'd sold him the dose of heroin that had killed him. My brother was a huge music lover; going to live shows was his greatest pleasure. As a
2. "HOW DID THEY DIE?"
While a near-stranger contacting a family member of the deceased to ask how he died seems particularly insensitive, according to the etiquette experts I talked to, this is actually a common mistake people make. Another woman, who I knew slightly from a small town I used to live in, messaged me to probe the cause of my brother's death. "What did he die of, I wonder?" she'd written what I assume she thought was
3. ANYTHING ABOUT "CLOSURE."
Please don't use the word closure with family members who have lost a loved one. Yes,
WHAT TO SAY INSTEAD
So what do you say to the bereaved, not just at a funeral, but in the months after, when grief takes on a terrible endless
For those grieving, be it the loss of a loved one, a relationship or good health, there is little that can be more difficult hearing "everything happens for a reason." About six months after my brother's death, my boyfriend at the time tagged me in a meme he posted on Facebook that gave the same sort of similar, pointless platitude. It was and the only thing I really took from it was that my boyfriend was becoming exasperated with my grieving. Looking back on it, I think that's probably about right.
Exasperation with grief is common, apparently — common enough that there's a new book coming out in October by author Joanne Fink that seeks to change the grief paradigm in the country. When You Lose Someone You Love was written in the wake of the unexpected death of Fink's husband. Two years after his passing, she found some friends had the expectation that she would now somehow move on from his loss, her mourning completed, like a grocery shopping trip.
"Grief is not something to be neatly folded up in a suitcase and gotten out when you feel like it."
"Grief does not follow a linear time frame…nor will it consent to be neatly folded up in a suitcase and gotten out when you feel like it," she notes. "Especially early on in what I call 'the grief journey,' grief has a mind of its own, and can sneak up on you with incredible ferocity when you are least expecting it. My journey from grief to gratitude is ongoing. Even after five
I read an essay not long after my brother died that called such banal cliches "nothing less than emotional, spiritual and psychological violence." No one suffering life-changing loss should be told something positive can grow from the tragedy, or that it was meant to happen, or that it will somehow make them a better person. Such myths, according to the essay, "keep us from doing the one thing we must do when our lives are turned upside down: grieve."
While I agree that it is only through grief true healing — if it's even to be had — can occur, I will note that in the more recent years since Gunnar's death I have comforted myself with the belief that from his loss I can create positive change. My way of doing so has been to write as honestly and beautifully as I can about loss, and how I'm moving through it, in the hopes that it might help others grieving, too. Of course, that's not to say that if someone had told me at my brother's memorial that his death happened for a reason I wouldn't have punched them in the nose.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the