Q. During a recent funeral, I overheard someone tell the adopted son of the deceased, “Well, at least it’s easier for you that he wasn’t your real father.” How can people be so insensitive? The son was speechless. 

Some people do speak inappropriately to grieving family members, although this is one of the more outrageous examples. Usually the trigger is extreme anxiety. Someone doesn’t know what to say and feels so uncomfortable about it that he/she spouts anything that comes to mind. Here are my nominations for the “Do-Not-Say List”:

  1. “I know how you feel.” Why? Because you don’t know how someone else feels, even if you think you do.
  2. “How are you?” The bereaved’s unspoken retort may be, “How do you think I am?”
  3. “It’s better this way.” Someone actually said this to a person who lost both parents in a car crash. The speaker meant, “At least they’ll be together,” but the grieving child didn’t feel that way.
  4. “You must feel [angry, devastated, etc.].” Feelings can run the gamut depending on the relationship with the deceased, circumstances of death and other factors. Why go there at all?
  5. “My second cousin lost her brother, too.” Nobody’s interested in stories about people they don’t know. “I lost my own brother,” although less objectionable, is still irrelevant.
  6. “It’s God’s will.” You may feel that way, but many bereaved feel furious at hearing this. Bringing religion into it is very dangerous.
  7. “You’ve got a long road ahead of you.” Do you think the person doesn’t know it? How is this supposed to help someone who is grieving?
  8. “The pain will fade.” You may think so, but the bereaved may feel you’re devaluing the intensity of his/her grief.
  9. “I hope good memories will comfort you.” Unless you’re very close to the bereaved, you don’t know if that’s true. Family relationships can be very troubled.
  10. “Is there anything I can do?” The person will always say “no” because he/she is in no condition to think of what needs to be done. If you really want to help, suggest specific tasks you might handle, such as airport pickups of out-of-town guests who are flying in to attend the funeral.


Brevity and sincerity avoids such traps, of course. People can never go wrong by saying, “I’m so sorry for your loss (or about your mother).” Period.


If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons, Jesslee Cuizon

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Comment by Nancy Weil on January 3, 2014 at 8:46am

Nicole, Your comment reminds me of something my friend said after her husband died. She told me that if one more person told her that "he was still with her" she was going to scream. She then said to me, "I know he is with me, but he isn't bringing me my coffee in the morning." 

Comment by Nicole Dixson on January 1, 2014 at 6:20pm

Stop telling me that my sister is still "with me".  

Comment by T.C. Goodwin on December 31, 2013 at 4:38pm

 You can never go wrong with a Sympathy card . They always seem to have the write things to say in them- Hebrews 13:22

Comment by victoria, Justin's Mom on December 29, 2013 at 5:57pm
I would add that it is also good to use the name of the deceased loved one, A simple and sincere "I'm sorry or I'm sorry about your Mother, Brother, Father, etc, is fine if you didn't know their deceased loved one well, but it is best to use their name. We parents who have lost our children love to hear their name spoken.
Comment by Nancy Weil on December 19, 2013 at 12:39pm

Great advice. A young widow in one of my support groups was told by someone at her husband's wake, "At least you look good in black." I warn the recently bereaved that people will say "unskillful" things trying to provide comfort. Best to not be offended or hurt, but to look at their heart and the fact that they are just trying to find words to show you that they care. I agree with Florence that the best words are " I am sorry for your loss" and that sometimes the best words are no words at all, but a warm embrace or a shoulder to cry on.

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