Death is something that all of us find uncomfortable. It serves to us as a reminder of how short our life is. And even if we didn’t know the person who passed away, it has us feeling sad. However, when we have to attend a funeral of someone, regardless of whether we were close to them, we hesitate. We don’t know what to say or what to do when we’re there.

Our Indian culture, as we know, is a collective culture. People attend funerals and give their condolences as soon as they hear about someone passing away. However, they usually say things that are not necessarily the most helpful in that moment. If you’ve lost a loved one, you’d know the comments that can be passed.

When a loved one passes away, it changes people’s lives and themselves. Attending the funeral of a loved one is traumatic. What follows this is grief. And this grief follows like a shadow, and you never know when it might resurface again, there’s not limit to something that can trigger those memories. How can you then help someone? What should you say?

Here’s the list of the things you should NOT say.

#1. Oh, they’re in a better place now.

The intention might be to soothe the pain of the one who is grieving, but it actually does more harm than good. For one, we don’t know how religious they are. But also, this sentence reminds the grieving people that their loved ones aren’t around anymore. It sounds like someone is trying to quickly end the conversation and this forces grieving individuals to suppress their feelings.

#2. I’ll be there for you if you need anything.

I cannot emphasize on how much this sentence seems like a burden at times. It is so overused that often times, people say it because they feel like they have to. First off, it’s a huge promise to live up to. Secondly, a person who is grieving is going through immense pain and loss. Grief takes a huge toll on a person: mentally, physically and even emotionally. They don’t want to reach out to people because they either want to be left alone or that reaching out to people seems like a huge task. Don’t leave it to them to reach out to you. It’s adding to their pain.

#3. Be Strong/Be Patient.

This is another phrase that I’ve heard so many times at so many funerals. As soon as this phrase is uttered, it breaks the person. When someone passes away, you cannot expect them to be okay. Grief forever changes the person. At a funeral, people are already hounding them with several questions. A grieving person, at funerals, is already hiding their emotions and adding this phrase on top of that is insensitive. “Be strong” is something that minimizes the strength they’re showing.

#4. You will be okay/ It will all get better

The intention to say this might be to provide some sense of relief or give strength to a person who is grieving. But it completely takes away their capacity to grieve. They might never be okay (and usually, after the death of a loves one, they certainly aren’t the same). Reminding them that they’ll be okay or things will get better is unbelievably apathetic. Let them grieve, let them take their time. Allow them to not be okay for a while.

#5. I understand how you feel.

Grief is very subjective. It differs from person to person, even in the same family. And really, no one experiences grief in the same way. It is natural to want to comfort the person and to let them know that they’re not alone. But instead of empathizing with the grieving person, what this does is completely erase their pain and make your pain more known. Remember, when you’re attending someone’s funeral, it’s not about you.

Here’s what you can say/do instead:

#1. I can’t imagine how you’re feeling now.

It’s okay to tell them that you don’t know what to say, or you’re at loss of words. You can sit with them silently and even listen to what they have to say. This sounds empathetic and lets them know that they’re not alone, and that their grief matters.

#2. Can I bring dinner tomorrow night?

Or something along these lines. Instead of asking the grieving person to reach out to you, you can offer help by being more specific. If you can help them with bills, or to figure out certain things; that would be great! This can show that you know they’re grieving and that you respect it.

#3. Keep your remarks brief.

If you don’t know the family well, give your condolences and keep it brief. You don’t want to overwhelm the grieving family with remarks from people they don’t know well. Give them space.

#4. Listen.

I’ve been to a lot of funerals where people don’t allow the family/loved ones to speak. They always have to cater to the visitors, and have to listen to people talk about how much the deceased mattered to them. No one asks the family and loved ones how they’re feeling. So, ask. Yes, they are not feeling fine, but it’s always better to ask and let them rant rather than speak for them.

Funerals are an overwhelming place to be at. If you’re at someone’s funeral, please pay respects to the deceased and give the same respect to the grieving family and loved ones. Give them their space and allow them to grieve. Loss changes everyone forever. We have to develop a more empathetic language and actively make sure that we’re not dismissing anyone’s pain, loss and sadness.

Omaiha Walajahi,
Pause for Perspective