Note: Our etiquette tips, including Offering Condolences, have a broad application to many religious traditions; however, some religions and ethnicities have specific requirements or traditions of their own. For more information, see our Funeral Customs section.
Acknowledging the Death
One of the reasons why people are so uncomfortable at a wake or funeral is because they’re not sure about what to do or say when offering condolences. While death may be an extremely uncomfortable topic, the worst thing you can do is ignore it when it occurs in the family of a friend or colleague. Doing nothing, or pretending it didn’t happen, is not good etiquette.
Whether you are offering condolences by calling, sending a card or flowers, or visiting, the important thing is to make a gesture that lets the family know you’re thinking of them and share their sorrow. (Although this appears to be changing slowly in today’s culture, such forms of communication as texts, emails, and tweets are still too informal for expressing sympathy or offering condolences.)
When hearing the news…
- Be a good listener. Let friends and family talk about their loved one and their death. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t pressure them. Focus on the survivor’s needs.
- Refer to the deceased by name, and acknowledge his or her life.
- Encourage the family to plan a wake, funeral, and burial (even if cremated), if you are in an appropriate position to do so. Ask to help make arrangements.
- Send flowers with a note (see suggestions for notes below) or offer a donation to a charity or an appropriate research organization.
- Don’t take control of the situation. The grieving family needs control to help them work through grief.
- Don’t bring up other people’s experiences. Let the bereaved focus on their loss.
- Don’t pressure the family to clean out the deceased’s belongings. They need to do this in their own time.
- Don’t expect things to be “back to normal” in a certain timeframe.
Making Condolence Calls
If you can’t visit in person, a telephone call expressing sympathy and offering condolences for the family is appropriate.
- Don’t be surprised if the phone is answered by someone who is taking messages, or your call goes to voicemail. It may be too much of a burden for the family to answer each call individually. Your message of sympathy will still be valued and appreciated.
- Keep your call brief. Remember, the family is likely receiving a large number of calls during a time of bereavement. Keep the focus on the bereaved. This is not the time to talk about yourself or to relate your own recent experience with losing a loved one or a dearly loved pet.
- Be a good listener. The bereaved may want to vent or cry or grieve. Let them talk about their loved one and the death. If they don’t want to talk about it, don’t pressure them.
- Focus on the survivor’s needs. Don’t ask questions about the circumstances or probe for details about the death.
It is kind to call occasionally after the funeral to check on the family, especially if you were close to the deceased or have offered some type of tangible help. Let them know you care and if you still wish to help, make the offer again. Include them in social plans if possible, keeping in mind their state of mind.
Sending Sympathy Cards
A pre-printed sympathy card is the default choice for most people, and it’s an acceptable way to go. Consider, however, writing a personal note in the card.
- Don’t be afraid to use the name of the deceased, to recall a fond memory, or to share a warm anecdote about how the person affected your life. Those remembrances will be treasured by the family and often are kept for years.
- If you can’t attend the service, be sure to express your regrets in the card.
- A special kind of acknowledgment for a Catholic family is a Mass condolence card—a greeting card that lets the family know a Mass will be said in memory of their loved one. You can obtain a Mass card at your local parish. You may offer a donation when asking that the Mass be said. Some greeting card stores also carry Mass cards. After purchasing the card, contact the parish to arrange for a donation. Mass cards can also be purchased online. An acknowledgment of the Mass will be sent directly to the bereaved.
Those who are bereaved may have an especially difficult time during holidays such as Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or the deceased’s birthday or wedding anniversary. You can help by sending cards to acknowledge those special occasions or the anniversary of the death.
Whether you express sympathy via a visit, call, or card, your choice of words is important. It is appropriate and kind to let the family know how much you will miss the deceased, how dear she was, how they made the world a better place, or what an inspiration he was.
Use your own words to convey messages like these:
“I/We are thinking of you. I/we wish there were words to comfort you”
“I/We are shocked and saddened by your loss. We care and love you deeply.”
He/She was such a fine person.”
“What you’re going through must be very difficult.”
“It’s too bad he/she died. I will always remember him/her.”
“He/she lived a full life and was an inspiration to me and many others.”
What NOT to say…
It is inappropriate to make statements that imply that the death was for the best or that show disrespect for the deceased. It is also inappropriate to probe for details of the circumstances of the death or the person’s final moments. Be careful about making spiritual or religious references unless you know those sentiments will be well received.
Avoid cliches like …
“It’s probably a blessing.”
“I know just how you feel.”
“He’s at peace now.”
“God won’t give you more than you can handle.”
“At least he/she is no longer suffering.”
“It was her time.”
Don’t tell them what to do …
“You have to be strong now for your family (or business).”
“Stay busy to take your mind off things.”
“You’ll get over it in time and find somebody else.”
“You’re young and can have more children.”
Bringing Food for the Bereaved
In many cultures, it is customary to bring food to the home of the deceased, since there probably will be many relatives arriving who need to be fed, and the family may have neither time nor energy to cook meals. Often the family’s church will organize the bringing of meals, or you can call ahead to see what is needed and when, so the family isn’t overwhelmed. Be sure to either use a disposable container or label your dish with your name and phone number if you need it back.
After the services…
- Keep in touch with the bereaved. Be there for them when they are ready.
- Remember birthdays and anniversaries of the death.
- Offer to clean, cook or do other chores.
- If appropriate, find out about support groups for bereaved parents and have the leader call the grieving parent to talk.
- Send cards frequently — even six months after the death.
- Praise the bereaved for even small accomplishments.