After a lifetime of helping families with final arrangements, we can tell you that the most frequent questions we get aren’t about headstones, caskets, memorial services, or burials.
When people ask those questions, what they really want to know is: “What do I do?” and “What can I say?”
The answers to these questions are more difficult than general questions about funeral arrangements because relating to and supporting people when they’ve had a loss is so very personal, and grief is a process unique to the individual. Issues of etiquette, community, variable emotions, and sometimes even religion or spirituality must be considered.
This is all to say, even if you’re well-versed in things that need to be done in the wake of a loss, it’s often difficult to know how to be there emotionally for people. What’s the best way to comfort a friend? How do you behave towards a colleague? Is it okay to mention the deceased’s name?
Here are our suggestions:
- Write a note and send it via snail mail, whether you’re a close friend or just an acquaintance, and do it ASAP. Acknowledge their grief, express sympathy for their loss, and let the person know you’re thinking of them during a difficult time.
- Communicate without expectation of acknowledgement or reciprocity. Reach out whenever you feel so inclined, but add a caveat that you’re not expecting anything back. “I just wanted to let you know I’m thinking of you and sending love, no response needed” is a nice way to phrase it.
- Show up for the funeral, memorial service, wake, shiva, or any other events to memorialize the deceased, even if you didn’t know them well. Your presence will be noticed and appreciated.
- Offer to do specific things for the person that’s suffered a loss. “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” is a well-meaning sentiment, but it’s an overwhelming in the context of the moment. Suggest specific things you’re willing to do, like “I can drop off some meals,” or “I’d be happy to offer childcare if you need to get out of the house.”
- Sometimes, just do things without being asked. Cleaning the house, restocking toilet paper and food, and taking messages are all easy tasks that will ease the burden on a grieving family.
- Offer remembrances of the person who has passed, both physical and memorial. One of the greatest gifts you can give is the gift of memory. Photos, stories, notes, remembrances—all of these are greatly appreciated by grieving friends and family.
- Encourage them to express their feelings, without fear of reservation or judgement. Avoid phrases like “I know how you feel,” “They’re in a better place,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” Give them time to grieve openly by saying “Let it out, I’m here for you,” or “This really hurts.”
- Extend an invite to the grieving person, just like you usually would. Having a party, heading to the movies, or going to dinner? Don’t assume they’re not up to coming—they can decide whether they’d like to join or not.
- Keep showing up. The grieving process extends well past the first week or the first month. Recognize that, and continue being there long after others have moved on. Just being there—watching a movie together, offering to stay overnight, bringing food—is enough. Be especially aware of holidays and other special days.
- Honor the anniversary of the person’s passing, particularly the first year. Write a note, make a call, or send flowers to memorialize the occasion.