Comforting the Grieving / What NOT to say at a Funeral

The following information is regarding the grieving process and provides ideas on how to comfort the grieving. It also includes a section of “what not to say”.

The Grieving Process (Kubler-Ross):

  1. Denial/Isolation – this normal response to grief is our way of buffering the aftershock. Can last for hours or weeks. Characterized by numbness, disbelief, disorientation, holding on strategies. This step allows time to help us gain control
  2. Anger – This response is also normal and is characterized by feelings of why me, hostility, rage, lonely, deprivation, and defenselessness.
  3. Bargaining – This phase expresses itself as a desire to extend a life or marriage. This phase can be dangerous when depression sets in. Carefully watch those in this phase of grieving to determine the degree that it interferes with daily life. Signs that the grieving person is in distress might include weight loss, substance abuse, depression, prolonged sleep disorders, physical problems, talk about suicide, and lack of personal hygiene. Observing these signs may mean the grieving person needs professional help. If you feel this is the case, a suggestion from you (if you feel close enough to the person), or from a trusted friend or family member may be appropriate. You might also want to point out community resources that may be helpful.
  4. Acceptance – People in this phase typically feel tired, peaceful, resignation, and reminiscent, but not necessarily happy. They may avoid crowds, sit in silence, and may gain perspective on their loss.

A crisis stage may occur after a shocking event and can last for 4-5 days afterwards. People in this phase need empathetic understanding, assurance that all appropriate efforts have been made.

What NOT to say or do

  • Never rush those grieving. Give them all the time they want with the body or at the gravesite.
  • Don’t push those grieving to get it all out or express their grief.
  • Don’t try to find a lesson in the event. Don’t say “The Lord has something more,” “It was God’s will”, “It was just his time”, or “The Lord must have needed him more that we did.”
  • Don’t say “You’re strong enough to handle this”, “I admire your courage”, or “God won’t give you anything you can’t handle.” Statements like these may prevent people from asking for help when they need it.
  • Don’t say “I know how you feel.” It’s impossible to know what someone else is feeling. Say instead, “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling.” They may tell you what they feel, but don’t push.
  • Don’t say “Be grateful for the time you had with him”, “at least she isn’t suffering”, or “you still have your memories.” Say instead, “it doesn’t matter how old our friends get, they’re still missed when they’re gone.”
  • Don’t say “you should be over this” or “you know she wouldn’t have wanted you to feel this way”. Statements like these cause people to feel guilty for grieving. Full recovery from the loss of a spouse may take years – some may never stop grieving.
  • Don’t tell grieving parents to “be grateful for the children they still have”.
  • Don’t say, “If you need anything, let me know.” Grieving individuals are often too overwhelmed to think of things for you to do. Instead say, “I want to help share your burden. Would it be helpful if I were to…”
  • Don’t change the subject away from discussing the loved one.
  • Don’t let your discomfort keep you from helping, calling, or visiting! Your avoidance will increase the confusion of those grieving.
  • DO SAY – I admired him because …
  • DO SAY – I don’t know what to say, just know I love you.
  • DO SAY – My thoughts and prayers are with you.
  • “Finally, keep your words short and remember that the person receiving them is in a very fragile state at that time. There is a long line of people who are waiting to come through and offer their condolences. He or she has probably been on their feet for an entire day and has not been able to eat or sleep well. If you’re not good with words at times like this don’t use them. A simple hug goes a long way in conveying your sorrow and serving as some comfort at a difficult time.” (Kathleen Olson)

How to Comfort the Bereaved

  • Allow them to express their feelings, but don’t push!
  • Reassure them that everything that could have been done was done
  • Express genuine concern
  • Acknowledge their pain
  • Be available to just listen
  • Do listen
  • Say you’re sorry
  • Do talk about the person they’ve lost
  • Provide comfort and support to grieving children
  • Communicate your love nonverbally with a gentle hug
  • Be specific in offers for help and follow up with action
  • Have someone available to run errands
  • Suggest activities you can do together (take a walk, attend church, attend the temple, go to lunch, etc)
  • Show your support with a visit
  • Allow people to remember anniversaries or birthdays of their loved one
  • Send flowers to brighten their day. An elaborate bouquet is not necessary, just a little something.
  • Put grievers’ names on the temple prayer roll
  • Offer to let visitors attending the funeral stay at your house, make preparations for visitors to arrive, make phone calls, babysit, provide a frozen casserole for later, or clean house so the family can take time to grieve.

Most of the above comments are from my notes made during a Regional Welfare Training on Grief. Some also came from the following websites: Ohio CopsMindPubHospiceNet, and Missouri Extension OfficeThe Funeral DirectoryGrieving with GuineverThings not to say at a funeral,

What Do I Say to Someone Who Is Dying?

by Emily Farmer, What Do I Say to Someone Who Is Dying?, Ensign, Apr. 1990, 72–73

Several years ago I found that I had cancer. The diagnosis turned my life upside down: I had to quit a rewarding job at a children’s hospital and endure endless painful tests and treatments. Though many people were concerned and wanted to help, I found that many of them felt uncomfortable and unsure of just what they could or should do. So, based on my experience, here are several things you should consider when you are wondering how best to serve a terminally-ill person.

Find out what the family really needs before you inundate them with lemon pie. A life-threatening disease takes time to deal with, so give the person and his or her family a chance to adjust. Perhaps they won’t need assistance at first, but do let them know that you care.

Check with the person or family to see what kind of service will be most helpful. I appreciated those people who were willing to give of themselves—to truly visit with me, give me hugs, and cheer me on.

When you visit, be yourself and treat the terminally ill person normally. Many people were at a loss for words when they came to see me. But I was still the same person as I was the day before I was diagnosed. I still had the same basic needs for love, understanding, acceptance, and support as before—but I needed those gifts even more.

I know that people meant well when they asked me how long I had or tried to “reassure” me with “Well, you know where you’ll be going.” What they didn’t know was that I was fighting to live! I didn’t want sympathy; I wanted strength and encouragement.

I also wanted and needed to know what was happening around me and to still feel part of it all. I wanted to share in my friends’ and family’s feelings and concerns just as I always had.

Share your sense of humor. Laughter really is good medicine. After lying in the cesium unit for many long days, unable to move and isolated in a bare room behind closed lead-lined doors, I felt like a prisoner convicted of a crime I didn’t commit. It was then that our oldest daughter came to visit. She sat down behind the lead screen that separated us and proceeded to take off her boots and socks. She slipped her socks on her hands and pretended they were puppets and spoke through them. I laughed for the first time in months. That simple act brightened my outlook instantly.

Don’t forget to share home teaching and visiting teaching messages with the terminally-ill person. I enjoyed feeling the love of my home and visiting teachers, but I particularly liked hearing their monthly messages. I needed the spiritual uplift of sharing gospel ideas, particularly since I often wasn’t able to make it to church meetings.

You might also want to consider taking the patient audiotapes of Relief Society, priesthood, or Sunday School lessons or even spending some time reading and discussing the scriptures with him or her.

There are many things you can do to support a terminally ill person. The keys to success are to be yourself, treat the person as normally as possible, and tailor your service to meet the person’s needs.

-Emily Farmer, Windsor Junction, Nova Scotia

A Special Note on Listening to those Grieving

In a study of 125 grieving persons in Tampa, psychologist Catherine M. Sanders asked participants what was most important in helping them through their grief. They overwhelmingly answered, “friends, family, neighbors — anyone who would take the time to listen,” Sanders reports.

Thus, listening is probably the single most important thing you can do for someone who is grieving. This means active listening, or listening to point that you are really trying to feel what that person is feeling.

It is helpful to allow the survivors to “tell the story” about how their loved one died. At first, they will recount minute details, but with each retelling, the story typically gets shorter. Each time they tell it, it becomes part of acknowledging and accepting the reality of the death.

If the subject of death makes you uncomfortable, understand that most people feel the same way. But realize that there is a real need for the survivor to talk. Don’t worry about being conversational. It is simply more important to listen.

Let those who are grieving know that you are thinking of them and of the loved one that has passed away. Let them know that you are praying for them and their families. A card can let someone know you are thinking of him or her. A visit or a phone call to listen would even be a better idea.

Some people listen best over a plate of cookies, a glass of tea or milk, and some time set aside to concentrate one-on-one with the person who is grieving. Whatever your style, by simply listening, we can help others cope with their grief. (Source: Focusas Grief)

Repression of emotion hinders grief. At any stage in the grieving process, whether people are paralyzed in terms of action and feeling angry or helpless, they are helped when a companion will listen without judging. More attention should be given to the role of friendship as a positive force in the grief process. Friends can help prevent severe psychiatric problems associated with the need to talk, to grieve, and to work through grief.

Studies show widows feel lonely at first, but this feeling lessens after a while if affectionate family members and friends are frequently present. Widows can help others newly widowed because they have learned it is good to feel all the grief, to sob, to display emotion. Widows have experienced how this can help relieve the despair. Remember, grief is caused by the loss of someone greatly valued. Grief is praise to that person.

Nonverbal communication with grieving people may be most effective. Touching is important. Gentle touching, holding, hugging or loving caresses are understood by everyone. Such support may be enough to encourage people to talk about deep feelings – to talk about the anguish of being caught in such a traumatic, helpless situation.

If grieving people do not talk, it might be because they sense that those who mean to support and listen are not yet comfortable in that role. Many times children will talk about dying as soon as they perceive an acceptance of death by the parents. If “listeners” are self conscious, grieving people sometimes notice and cut off expression of deep feelings. (Source: Missouri Extension Office)


What should you say to someone who has lost a family member to suicide? You say and do the same kind, comforting things you would to someone who lost a family member to cancer, to an accident, to a peaceful passing in their sleep. After the funeral services for my father, who had committed suicide, a number of people pulled me aside to tell me warm memories about my father. This brought a smile and even an occasional chuckle in the midst of a grueling time for our family. Unfortunately, there were also those who felt the need to say that what my father had done was a sin. I didn’t need to hear that; I was already worrying about the implications of my father’s actions. Thank goodness for a friend who pointed out these words of Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915-85) of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “It should … be remembered that judgment is the Lord’s; he knows the thoughts, intents, and abilities of men; and he in his infinite wisdom will make all things right in due course.”

Kind words go a long way for someone whose life has been twisted by the ugly circumstances of suicide. Staying away because you don’t know how to react helps no one and actually causes more pain. Condolences and acts of service shouldn’t be based on the manner in which someone died. Offer your heart without hesitation. Kelly Lynette Drake, Highlands Ranch Ward, Highlands Ranch Colorado Stake

Source for above: “Questions and Answers,” Ensign, Jun 2005, 1215 – This article also has a list of very practical suggestions on how to appropriately help those who are grieving.

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