What to say to the family of the recently deceased, part 2

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August 3, 2010 by 8junebugs

In addition to the bazillion (or 10) new readers with dental questions that get here via google, the most frequently used search term that lands people on 8junebugs.com is some version of, “What do I say to someone mourning a death in the family?” Which sends them here.

Makes sense, doesn’t it? I mean, our culture ain’t death-friendly. On the whole, we fear it, we fight it, and we sure as hell don’t talk about it before it happens. So it follows that a lot of people don’t know what to do or say when the time comes to express condolences.

I don’t remember my parents ever covering that. But then, I don’t remember any non-family deaths from my childhood. I lost grandparents and my great-grandparents and some other greats, but that seemed normal. Grandparents and their siblings and parents were…old. It was sad, but it was normal. I don’t remember seeing my parents interact with someone mourning a loss.

What I have learned, I’ve learned by doing or by being done to. (As with many things, come to think of it…) There have been a few too many deaths ’round these parts in the last couple of years, and I’m at the tipping point, age-wise. From here on out, a middle-of-the-night phone call from a friend could be “My contractions are three minutes apart!” or “My mom just had a heart attack — could you water my plants for a week or two?”

(I suppose it could be “I’m in a Turkish prison,” but I’m still counting on Twitter for that kind of news.)

So it comes down to this: What do you say to someone who’s just lost a family member?

Miss Manners and Emily Post have covered this, naturally. If I may distill their wisdom:

  • Be nice.
  • Be sincere.
  • Be brief.

In that order.

You don’t have to be brief, but it helps. Chances are, the person you’re talking to (a) is a little out of it and (b) has to talk to a lot of people. If you have a lot to say, you can always say it later or send a card.

Or? There’s a lot of space in that guest book. Write a note. Your friend will read it later.

So on top of the plain, simple, perfectly adequate “I’m so sorry,” what should you say? That depends on the friend and whether you knew the deceased.

If you knew the deceased, share a memory. A good one. A funny one. Something your friend might not know. Keep complaints to yourself — being annoyed at a dead person is a waste of time, anyway.

If you didn’t know the deceased, focus on your friend. Have tissues on hand, squeeze an arm, fetch a cup of water, be solemnly friendly with the others in the room. Follow your friend’s lead and, if some waxy, solicitous funeral director gives an instruction, follow that, too — they’re on crowd control so that your friend doesn’t have to direct traffic.

You honestly don’t have to say much at all. Being there is enough.

Last but not least, reserve judgment. Many funeral-type traditions are a little bananas and intensely personal. On one side of my family, the odds are fair that you’ll see us do a call-and-response Rosary with a 90-year-lady taking the lead. On the other side, we look for the most representative and tongue-in-cheek receptacle in which to carry your cremains to the non-denominational service.

Po-tay-to, po-tah-to.

Your thoughts? What would you like to hear from a friend while you’re mourning?


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