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Grace for the Grieving – What to Say at a Funeral Home and a Few Things Not to

Let’s take a vote. A show of hands please of how many people look forward to visiting a funeral home? Nobody? Thought so.

You are not alone. Visiting a funeral home ranks right up there with root canals and eating fruitcake. Face it. You never know what to say. You are not sure how long you should stay. The longer you linger, the more you have to ponder your own mortality. And who wants to be reminded of that absolute truth.

Yet when a family member or friend has lost a loved one, you go to the funeral home because somewhere deep inside, you know it is the right thing to do, if for no other reason than it might prove a comfort to the surviving family members.

So for those kind-hearted, compassionate folk who overcome their fears and hesitancy to visit that friend or family member during a time of grief, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about what to say and do during such a visit.

I speak from one who has traveled that road. I know where the speed bumps and potholes are.

You see, for a while, I thought my first name was “Survived by” since you would find my name in the obituaries immediately following such words. In the space of just a few years, I lost my dad, my mom, and my wife. So I can speak with some experience as to what those of us in the midst of grief most appreciate from those who attend a funeral or visitation.

Here’s TheBuddyBlog.com’s list of things to keep in mind during a visitation to a funeral home:

Your presence. Just by showing up, you are communicating love, honor, and respect. I may have forgotten what you said during the visit, but your presence always humbled me. When my wife passed away, we set the visitation period for a Monday evening 6-8pm. Not knowing how many visitors to expect, I was overwhelmed when 300 people showed up. Three hours later, I finally sat down, physically and emotionally exhausted, yet so grateful for the sacrifice of time that so many made to spend a few minutes with my family and me.

A warm handshake or embrace. Physical touch can be awkward during such times. I remember a family friend who merely walked up to me, sincere grief upon his face, unable to say a single word, and just hugged me. He looked me in the eye for a lingering moment, squeezed my hand, gave me a sympathetic, understanding smile and then turned and walked away. Words could not have added any more to the condolence offered.

I am sorry for your loss.” If I heard that phrase once, I heard it a hundred times. In recent years, it has become the go-to comment that we make because we do not know what else to say. But that’s ok. Never underestimate the power of simple comments and your personal presence.

Speak from your heart. I remember when my dad passed away in 2005, a cousin who was very close to my dad, drove 25 miles to the funeral home. He walked in the front door, spotted me in the hallway and made a beeline for me. With tears in his eyes, he said, “I loved your dad. He meant more to me than words can ever say. I am sorry, but I cannot walk into that room and see him in a casket. It is more than I can take. I hope you understand. He was like a father to me.” At that, he turned around, walked out the door and left. I will forever remember that conversation.

Share a story. My one regret during these visitation periods was that I did not record the stories people shared. One of my dad’s co-workers told me about the time the two of them traveled to North Georgia to investigate an insurance claim. They visited this couple who lived in a dilapidated house trailer. With business completed, the co-worker explained how my dad took note of the small children and impoverished circumstances of the family. He immediately drove to a nearby grocery store, bought a few bags of groceries and returned to the trailer, leaving the food at their door. He finished that story with “That’s the kind of man your dad was.” Many of the anecdotes people shared about my dad, I had already heard. But that was a new one and hearing it for the first time, at that particular moment, filled my spirit with joy and gratitude because that was indeed the kind of man my dad was. The sharing of such stories added more gold to the treasure chest of memories of my dad.

Follow-up. During the visitation and the funeral, the surviving family members are overwhelmed with grief. As much as they appreciate your presence and consoling words, they will find it hard to remember details. I remember the days surrounding my wife’s funeral as being filled with activity, people dropping off food, phone calls, personal visits. However, a few days later, I found myself sitting in an empty home, where the silence became a megaphone for my grief. Over the next several weeks, I so appreciated the card or phone call, just letting me know I was loved, that someone was praying for me and thinking about me. Friends invited me to tea or dinner. They stayed in touch. On the one year anniversary of my wife’s death, I received three phone calls from people who were thinking of me. These were powerful, thoughtful actions that I will forever cherish.

Be a Good Listener. Sometimes the best gift you can give someone who is grieving is just to listen. While conversations at a funeral home may be brief, those grieving may choose to talk. Allow them to vent their pain. Don’t judge them or try to fix them, just let them express themselves. I remember a few weeks after my wife’s funeral, a co-worker stuck his head in my office and asked with sincere conviction, “How ya doing?” I motioned him to come in and sit down. I started talking, telling him exactly how I was doing – which wasn’t all that well. Twenty minutes later I realized I had been talking non-stop. He just sat there patiently and listened. Only later did I fully comprehend how the grace of this silent listener did more to comfort me than any words he could have said.

My challenge to you is this. Do not allow the awkwardness of a funeral home visit to deter you from going. The fact is that few of us know what to say during such times of grief and loss. But that’s ok. Just be yourself and express your sorrow. II Corinthians 1:3-4 exhorts us to remember that “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”

As we have been comforted, let us comfort others at their time of need. Whether it is the honor of your presence, the comforting tone of your words, or the patient listening you provide, your gracious actions during their time of grief is a gift of grace that defines what “loving one another” is all about.

Things to Avoid
Though never intended, it is also possible to stumble in an effort to offer comfort. A thoughtless word or phrase can sometimes prove embarrassing, if not hurtful. So allow me to suggest a few things to avoid.

I know people mean well, but during such awkward moments, there will always be someone who forgets to turn on the filter between their brain and tongue. I never let that bother me as I always assumed people were there for the right reasons, and I appreciated the effort they made to be there. So even if their foot became firmly planted in their mouth, I cut them some slack. I just refused to be offended or irritated. They meant well. That said, please do not tell me that “she’s in a better place,” or that “I’ll feel better soon,” or “at least he didn’t suffer much,” or that “time will heal all wounds.” While all of that may be true, the days immediately following a loss are not the time to express those sentiments.

I humbly suggest you also do not tell me that you “know how I feel.” Yes, you may have suffered a similar loss, but you still do not fully know how I feel. In those raw grief-stricken days following the loss, do not try to fix me. In time, maybe we can talk, and an opportunity will arise for you to share what you found helpful during the grief process.

And for you Christians out there, may I respectfully request you refrain from quoting Romans 8:28, “All things work together for those who love the Lord.” I know that verse well. I believe all that it implies. Yet I confess that when someone shared that verse with me immediately after losing my wife to cancer, my first response (never spoken, only thought) was “I wonder if you would feel the same way if you were in my shoes?” It is just not the right verse for that moment of time.

However, I cannot share that advice without giving you the rest of the story. A few weeks after the funeral of my wife, I received a card from a family friend. Her words were short but tender and consoling. She closed with quoting Romans 8:28. In her case, I knew that she had lost two children, one at a very young age, the other as an adult. For her to share that verse, after her own life experience, was a powerful message that gripped me. To say she had credibility would be an understatement. In other words, she could say those words because she had lived them. She wasn’t preaching a theological principle but sharing a spiritual lesson, one painfully learned. I was humbled and touched by her words.

There is a time to grieve and a time to move on. Not that you will ever forget those you have lost, but after a while, time does allow you to gain perspective. Now years later, I can say, with a heart full of gratitude, that the outpouring of love and sympathy during those times of personal loss helped me to survive and eventually move forward with my life.

I read somewhere that a small deed done is better than a great deed planned. Visiting someone who has suffered a loss may be just a small deed, but it is a loving act of grace for the grieving.

Everybody can be great…because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.” Martin Luther King, Jr.

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  1. Gini Hayes

    Thanks Buddy for sharing this. Important to share pur love for the people every chance we can.


  2. Katy Hall

    Thank you for this. It’s never easy to make that trip, but your presence is the best gift that you can give.


  3. Sr. M

    I can’t tell you how much we think alike. A few years ago I was sitting beside a woman whose 21 year old son had just died in an auto accident. There were about 5 or 6 people sitting in the living room with her. Mary was a very small woman and really soft-spoken. A woman came in and said to every one, “Well, he’s in a much better place now” and Mary screamed loudly “and I want him here!!” Nobody spoke a word. .. Yes, I agree & thank you. God bless you ‘ keep blogging! Sr. M


  4. M

    Touching and oh so true . . .


  5. Richard Willits


    Yep, everything you say is true and very worthwhile….

    I have taken on a different perspective over the years… I don’t recall exactly when it dawned on me, but somewhere along the line I realized I didn’t enjoy weddings much… and instead rather looked forward to the funeral home visitation…. this 82 year old geazer going on 90 realized he would avoid a wedding if he could as I neither knew many nor related much to a bunch of 20 year olds. In fact I didn’t know 10% of them most of the time, and didn’t have much in common with those that I did know. Conversely, I realized that many of my distant family and friends from down thru the years were likely to be at the visitation too, affording a great opportunity to renew old friendships while at the sometime paying my respects.

    So, if you don’t see me at the next wedding party common to us both, you’ll know why.




    1. Buddy McElhannon

      So Dick. I guess if you outlive me I can count on one old geezer walking into the funeral home and shouting “PARTY TIME!” And should I outlive you I will do the same. “Dick has gone to gloryland, hallelujah- it’s PARTY TIME “


  6. Janet Johnson

    Hi Buddy – Another great and thoughtful article. Thanks, Janet >


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