Funeral Etiquette: 7 Insensitive Comments to Avoid Using

Whether overt or implied, avoid saying these things to the bereaved

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Even well-intentioned remarks can come across as insensitive to someone mourning a death. Photo © Image Source/Getty Images

It's often difficult in life to find the right words or know what to say at times, particularly when attempting to comfort the bereaved. Unfortunately, even when well intentioned, many comments made at funerals, wakes/visitations and in condolence letters are misguided and thoughtless. Here are seven insensitive comments you should never utter to someone grieving the death of a loved one. Unfortunately, whether expressed overtly or through implication, comments of this sort are all too real.

He/She Deserved to Die
While it defies common sense that anyone would suggest this to someone mourning the death of a loved one, judgmental expressions -- even through implication -- that the deceased somehow deserved to die are far more common than you think. Those making this thoughtless type of remark typically disapproved of some aspect of the deceased's lifestyle and feel the need to express or imply that opinion after the fact, whether to make themselves feel superior or to affirm their own opposing actions and choices.

Examples:
• She smoked two packs of cigarettes a day. I wasn't surprised... Everyone knows it's unhealthy... What did she expect?

• I told him he needed to go on a diet... exercise more... stop drinking... get help for his addiction.

• He always hung around with the wrong crowd... lived under a dark cloud.

Things Could be Worse
Often, even those with their hearts in the right place attempt to console the bereaved by resorting to comparisons.

Unfortunately, anyone grappling with the despair caused by the death of a loved one cannot see or feel much beyond his or her present emotional pain, whereas comparing the relative merits between "what is" and "what might be" is primarily a cognitive function -- and someone mourning the forever-loss of a beloved spouse, child, pet, friend, etc., definitely lives in the immediacy of his or her emotional reality.

Examples:
• Thank God you still have your daughter... still have your other dog.

• You're 35. My father died when I was only four years old; I never knew my sister.

• Fortunately, she held on long enough for your family to be with her at the end.

It was Destiny
Even most devout believers tend to question their faith at some point after a close loved one dies, due to the challenging permanence of death. Therefore, expressing comments that the decedent's death was preordained due to religious doctrine/belief merely suggests that the bereaved should somehow feel happy about the loss and that crying and showing anguish about the situation is somehow out of place. Because you cannot know how someone else truly feels, it's best to avoid comments of this sort, even if the griever is a person of faith.

Examples:
• It was God's will... part of His plan.

• We cannot always know why things happen.

Don't cry, she's in heaven now.

Everything Happens for a Reason
This is the semi-secular version of the previous remark.

Without referencing a specific deity or higher power, the speaker still suggests that life is governed by physical or spiritual rules/laws that the mourner should just accept -- and perhaps take comfort in -- even if that rationale defies his or her understanding. Remember that grief is an emotional response and typically defies the rational.

Examples:
• Death is part of the cycle/circle of life.

• It was his/her time.

• Only the good die young.

At Least...
Comments that include the words "At least..." attempt to offer comfort through comparison at a time when those plumbing the depths of grief cannot effectively "switch off" their all-consuming emotional response to the death of a loved one. Unlike the "Things Could be Worse" remarks described above, however, this sort of comment betrays the speaker's judgment surrounding the death and, unfortunately, how he or she thinks the bereaved individual should view the situation. The latter can complicate an individual's grief response.

Examples:
• At least you had a father... a child... a healthy baby.

• At least you had 14 good years with your wife... your dog... your partner.

• At least he's no longer suffering... no longer in pain.

You're Still Young
Another example of misguided comfort through comparison, comments of this sort attempt to console by reminding a grieving individual that his or her age affords time to somehow "erase" the pain he or she is presently feeling. In reality, people never get over the loss of someone dearly loved. Suggesting to a woman, for example, that there's still time for her to have another baby as she grapples with the soul-wounding pain of a miscarriage or stillbirth is utterly ridiculous and totally insensitive.

Examples:
• Fortunately, you're still young and can have another child.

• I think you should get another dog/cat right away to take your mind off of [pet's name].

• You'll find someone else... to date... to marry... to spend your life with.

It's Better...
If you ever catch yourself expressing anything to someone mourning a death that includes the words "It's better..." -- or implies that sentiment -- then you should immediately bite your tongue and walk away without finishing your thought. To the bereaved, nothing is better than having their loved one among the living -- even if only for one more day, in many cases.

Examples:
• I'd rather suffer a miscarriage than lose my four-year-old.

• It's better this way because he/she was suffering... in so much pain... wouldn't want to live that way.

• I'd rather go quickly than linger for weeks... I hope I die in my sleep like he did.

Suggested Reading:
Funeral Etiquette: 5 Things You Should Never Say
What to Say When Someone Has Lost a Child
What Not to Say to Someone Who Lost a Loved One Due to Addiction
Unhelpful Actions Toward a Dying Loved One
How to Write a Condolence Letter
Five Tips for Writing/Delivering a Successful Eulogy

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