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”:
- “I know how you feel.” Why? Because you don’t know how someone else feels, even if you think you do.
- “How are you?” The bereaved’s unspoken retort may be, “How do you think I am?”
- “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.
- “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?
- “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.
- “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.
- “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?
- “The pain will fade.” You may think so, but the bereaved may feel you’re devaluing the intensity of his/her grief.
- “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.
- “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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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