Practical Things to Say and Do When Someone Dies
Keep it Simple
Oh no, a friend I know just died. My heart is on the floor. Tears sting my eyes. What can I do? What can I say? How can I help? The death of a friend or relative puts the brakes on to our busy world. We have an urgent need to “DO SOMETHING—-ANYTHING!” We find ourselves wringing our hand, afraid we might cause more hurt. Not knowing how to show our love and concern, we may opt for doing nothing rather than “intruding on their grief.” I’d like to share something important with you. Survivors tell me it helps so much to have others reach out to them. Most of them are very glad you cared enough to try.
For over twenty one years, I listened to people share their hurts and frustrations as they journey through the mourning process. I volunteered with Fox Valley Hospice for five years and supported bereaved families as the Bereavement Care Director at Conley Funeral Home in Elburn, Illinois. I looked for ways to help them concretely express their grief. When I followed up on them at regular intervals in the year following the death, the bereaved told me the BEST thing a person can do for someone they care about is simply: BE THERE—period! You don’t have to say or do a thing.
Survivors tell me over and over how a hug or heartfelt handshake is remembered more than any words. Even though we know we don’t really need to say anything, we still would feel more comfortable if we had a thought or two in our back pocket-just in case. From my reading and experience with “those who have been there” I compiled a list of helpful thoughts. You can also write words similar to these on a card going off in the mail. The thoughts are short and simple. Survivors have so much to think about that many times it is difficult for them to be aware of what is happening around them. It is best to keep comments brief. At the end of the article, there is a list of hints on what not to say. Survivors shared with me that hearing these things from those who came to comfort can actually cause more hurt and confusion. Helping people is one of the things life is all about. So go to your friend with confidence, knowing that your presence will bring comfort, even if your words are not remembered.
WHAT TO SAY
The best advice I ever received when trying to think of something to say when there really wasn’t anything to say was, “Simply say what you are feeling.” Try to put into words the pain and loss you are feeling your self rather than assuming what the other person is feeling. Let the survivor express his thoughts and feelings to you first. This gives him a sense that you are really listening and trying to understand. After you listen you will have a better understanding of how to respond. The following suggestions can be put in your own words.
o What a tragedy this is for you and your family.
o I heard about what happened and just had to come
o I hate it that this had to happen.
o How terribly hard this must be for all of you.
o I feel so bad about all the suffering (Name) had to go through.
o I was just shocked when I heard the news.
o I can’t imagine what you are going through.
o My heart hurts for all of you.
o Tears came to my eyes when I read the obituary.
o I feel just terrible about what happened.
o What an awful loss to our community.
o There’s a big hole now in my life.
o The world will never be the same without (Name).
o (Name) had such a great smile, personality etc. I will really miss him/her.
o I enjoyed working together with (Name). He always made the tasks easier, more fun etc.
o (Name) had such a wonderful way of making everyone he met feel special.
o I’m going to miss (Name) so much.
o I remember when… (happy memory here)
WHAT TO DO
Nature provides a wonderful, natural “tool” to help the bereaved get through the first hours and days after the death of someone they love. It’s called shock. When our friends are in shock, they find it difficult to think and feel. The day to day necessities of life are difficult to handle. When you are looking for ways to help your friend, be practical. The following list will need to be adapted according to the friendship you have established with the family. You will need to use your own thoughtful discernment regarding the appropriateness of these suggestions.
WHEN YOU FIRST HEAR
Determine whether the family would appreciate a call from you at this time or just a thoughtful little note tucked in their door saying how much the family is in your thoughts since you heard the news. In the note, you can offer several suggestions for helping the family out, such as:
o Washing the cars inside and out.
o Answering the phone.
o Polishing shoes
o Keeping track of children, driving them to lessons etc.
o Gathering information, (flight plans etc.)
o Picking up relatives from the airport
o Grocery shopping or other errands
o Caring for pets
o Bringing over snacks and/or a meal
o Staying at the home to receive gifts of food and/or flowers, recording who they are from.
PREPARING FOR VISITATION
o Rather than sending cut flowers to the funeral home, why not send a plant that can be replanted outside to your friends’ home?
o Choose a picture frame, figurine or piece of jewelry in memory of the loved one to give to your friend.
o Prisms that make rainbows throughout the room when the sun shines make a lasting gift of hope and beauty.
o Monetary gifts made to the designated memorial funds are greatly appreciated.
o Make up “quiet bags” for the young children. At visitations kids don’t have much to do. They don’t enjoy talking with relatives. You will be a hero to them and their parents if you provide a little relief. Buy a few inexpensive quiet toys for them to play with during those long hours. (Pad of paper and pencil, a small stuffed animal to hold for comfort, magnetic games or quiet contained puzzles, white boards.
o Make a memory book of blank pages that friends and family can fill in for a valued keep-sake. Ask people you see at visitation or at the luncheon afterwards to write their thoughts and memories. Make a pretty cover for it or use a fun photograph.
o Make a photo album of photos of you and your friend. Everyone appreciates photos of their loved ones.
SERVICES TO OFFER
o Offer to “house sit” during the visitation hours or the funeral where you can answer the phone and door. Keep good messages.
o Offer to coordinate the luncheon.
o Offer to clean up after the luncheon.
o Offer to sit with small children during the funeral at the funeral.
ATTENDING THE VISITATION
o Attend the visitation and offer a warm handshake or a hug.
o Bring a note with special memories and/or attributes of the person who died.
o Don’t be afraid to show your own tears. They show the survivors that you care too. Their loved one did not live in vain.
THE FUNERAL OR MEMORIAL SERVICE
o When you help out by taking food, be sure to put your name and phone number on the container. Better yet, send it in a disposable container. (When preparing food, it would be especially thoughtful to consider any of the survivors who may be on a special diet). Also when you prepare food, choose something that will be especially comforting to eat like a hot noodle or potato dish.
o Offer to return food containers to their owners after the luncheon.
o Offer to bring the paper and plastic products for the luncheon after the funeral.
o Offer to bring more chairs if needed.
WHAT NOT TO SAY
When someone dies, the mourners are often confused and hurt. They are experiencing a variety of feelings which make them feel especially vulnerable. It is best to not offer any explanations about the death, assume how they are feeling or even encourage them to look on the bright side. Let them take the lead with these thoughts. What they want most is to be accepted and given the right to express their thoughts and concerns without judgment. In time mourners can usually see past insensitive remarks to the heart behind the words. If you have said any of the following in the past, forgive yourself, knowing that you did the best you could with the knowledge you had at the time. Your intentions came from a heart full of love. That’s what really counts. Vow to never say them again.
o It must have been his time. (most survivors are not ready to hear this yet-they are still wanting the person to be alive and with them)
o She lived a good life. (this does not give the survivor the room to have different feelings)
o It must have been God’s will. (This comment can cause anger toward God, pointing the blame and causing the survivor to feel guilty for being angry at a loving God.)
o If he wouldn’t have been out that late, he would be alive right now. (This comment is blaming the victim and not bringing comfort to the survivors.)
o She wouldn’t want you to be so sad. (People hurt when someone dies because they loved him/her. It’s natural and healthy to feel sad. None of us like to be told what or what not to feel.)
o When a child dies please don’t say, “You’re young, you can have more children.” (This comment minimizes the death. No child can ever take the place of another.)
o I know just how you feel, my dog died last month. (Most parents will in no way relate to that.)
o At least you have other children. (Again, there’s a hole that no child can replace.)
o It’s probably for the best. (A survivor is so overwhelmed with feelings of grief, that his comment is usually misunderstood.)
o God must have wanted a baby angel. (Parents cannot understand how God would want their child more than they do)
o I know just how you feel. (Even though you may have had a similar experience, you are not this person. There are multiple factors influencing each individual circumstance and therefore you cannot know how someone else is feeling.)
o Just keep looking for the positives. (A griever usually cannot be at this point in his mourning for many weeks following the death.)
o You just sit there and let me take care of everything. (Making decisions is helpful in the recovery process of grief-let survivors make as many as they can.) NOTE: While giving someone valium may sound like a good idea at the time, the drug or one like it can dull feelings that will still need to be dealt with eventually. It is important to a person’s well being that they are active participants with as sharp a mind as possible.
DON’T SAY THE FOLLOWING TO CHILDREN
o Look at how peacefully she is sleeping. (Children take most things literally and may have problems sleeping because they believe that they may die in their sleep.)
o You must take care of your mom/dad now. (This is too much pressure on a child-they need to be themselves and mourn in their own way. No one else can take the place of another. A family needs to work together repairing the broken circle. In healthy grief, families need each other and support one another.
o No, you shouldn’t see (Name). It’s better to remember them the way they were. (This may be true for some children, but for others they need to see for themselves that the person is really dead otherwise they may continually look for them to come home.
o In the case of suicide, NEVER impose your beliefs or even suggest where their loved ones’ soul has gone even if you share the same faith. Suicide is cruel. Support your friend as if he has a broken limb. Don’t offer any opinions.
SOME CONCLUDING REMARKS
Unfortunately, grief does not go away in a few weeks. Survivors eventually learn to integrate their loss but find there are special times that trigger the sadness. Some of those times are predictable like holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries. The days surrounding the one year anniversary of the death can be especially difficult. Other times are not so predictable; the first signs of spring or the smell of fall or even seeing someone in a crowd that resembles the loved one can bring on an overwhelming sadness. Being aware of these times especially the first year and possibly the second can be good times for some special attention from you. A phone call, card, flowers or visit are greatly appreciated by the griever.
If your friend is finding it hard to cope with daily activities and is experiencing extreme sleeping and eating patterns over a long period of time could mean that they could benefit from talking with a clergy person or professional counselor who understands the grieving process. Some people find that support groups like, Make Today Count, Survivors of Suicide or Compassionate Friends are especially helpful.
May you go in peace and find that you are a better person because you took the time, energy and courage to reach out.