October 27, 2012

what not to say when someone dies.

It's been three years today since my Dad died. Ugh, that still sounds so terribly blunt. To be perfectly honest, I have a hard time believing that three years have already passed by. I can go right back to that moment in my basement the morning after we learned of his death, sitting beside my now-husband saying "I don't think I can do this -- I could barely get through last night. How am I supposed to get through the next week -- the next year -- the rest of my life -- with him just gone?"

This thought was running through all of our heads -- just this unbearable weight of grief that we didn't know what to do with or how to hold properly. And yet, three years have gone by and somehow we're all still here. Changed, yes, but here.

Through my experience with grief and death and funerals and freezers full of strange lasagna, I've learned a couple of things. Not many things -- but at least three things, which I'll share today. So, without further ado -- what not to say when someone dies and you're standing in line at the wake waiting to talk to the family and thinking about how terribly sad and awkward this is.

1) "Your life will be so different now."

I'll just say this right away -- it's going to take a great deal of self-discipline to not be sarcastic in this post. But come on. Do you really think I haven't realized that my life has been utterly and completely changed with the loss of one of the most important men in my life? I'm perfectly aware that this death has thrown my life onto a totally different track than the one I had anticipated for myself, but thanks for the clarification.

(Sorry. Couldn't quite avoid the sarcasm.)

2) "You're going to have a completely different group of friends now." 

Definitely something my mother did not need to hear while standing beside my dad's casket. Not only had she just lost her spouse, but someone felt it necessary to inform her that all her friendships with other couples would fall apart and her only option would be to hang out with other widows.

For the record, this hasn't happened.

3) "Oh, this is just so sad. But I know this couple who lost all four of their parents, one of their siblings, and their infant twins all within 2 months... and now they both have cancer."

No one actually said this exact thing to us, but you get my point. I know that there are people with worse stories than mine. I'm quite aware that my situation is like a Florida vacation compared to what others are struggling through. I'm genuinely sorry for those people, and hope dearly that they'll be able to get through their own dark valleys. But right now, at this moment, I'm standing across from my dad's lifeless body and being indirectly told to "suck it up" is not what I need to hear. Is this selfish? I'm not sure. But it's how I felt, and how I'm sure most people would feel were they in the same situation.

"Okay Suzanne," you're saying. "You've sassed us long enough. You must think you're pretty funeral-savvy. What are we supposed to say in the awkward sad lineup at the wake?"

Two words:

I'm sorry. 

That's it. That's all you need to say. It's that simple. Sure, there are other appropriate things to say and do (like give a bear hug! Mmm), but this is the easiest, most basic approach. There's a long line behind you. The family is exhausted emotionally and physically. A long conversation or an offer to help with something is best saved for another time and place. Going to the visitation is a quiet, simple way to show the grieving family that you love them and are hurting for them and want to support them. And that's it.

I'll be honest, though -- despite my funeral expertise, I still dread going to wakes and funerals because here's the thing -- I still sometimes can't think of what to say. This is why I can't hold bitterness in my heart towards the people who spoke thoughtlessly. It doesn't matter what you've been through, death is still hard, and it's still a challenge to know what to say and how to act. It's hard to know how to deal with it. It's hard to know how to get down to the level of grief that someone else is experiencing and find the right level of compassion and sympathy, even if you're someone who has been in that same place.

With this in mind, I swept the thoughtless comments aside and just kept the wisdom gained through those experiences for use when necessary. In short -- we're humans and we're terrible at loving each other well. Fortunately God sent Someone who could completely identify with our sorrow and grief and pain... because without Jesus I may have had a little less patience in that lineup. Thanks be to God for another year of His love, provision, and grace.


  1. Also: "Oh, you just look AWFUL!"

    Do I really? I was hoping I'd be able to hide the effects of the recent tragedy that's thrown all our lives into complete disarray…

    1. I forgot about this one!! Also very common and strange.

  2. Suzanne - I love this. I posted it on Facebook because I think it holds many wise words and helpful information (along with being a great witness!)

  3. Love to you and your family :)

  4. I'm a Friend of Mel K.'s, she shared this on Facebook, and I gotta say, this was refreshing.

    I lost my dad just under 2 years ago, and we definitely heard some of the very same things. At the same time, I found myself frustrating with everyone saying "I'm sorry." Personally I found myself wanting everyone not to say anything, just mourn with me, and be there when I needed a shoulder to cry on. There were a few who were able to be there, but many disappeared within a week after the funeral.

    Just some of my thoughts, Thanks for the read!

    1. Hi Jay, I really appreciate your words. Just goes to show that no one is the same and that there is no completely fail-proof way to approach this type of situation. I hope you have found comfort in your grief with God's grace... thanks again for sharing!

  5. Hi Suzanne,
    It truly seems like just yesterday in some respects and in other ways so much has changed, but in all of this our God is faithful. I would challenge those who go to funerals and visitations, to mark 6 months or a year on the calendar and make sure to send a card or make a call then and to stick by down the road when many of the supports have fallen away. Hugs as always!