What to say and what not to say: A guide for funeral etiquette

Those of you who have kept up in my blog know that my husband George was the joy of my life, the best person I’ve ever known.  He was funny and kind and greatly loved.  He died on March 2 due to complications of surgery on January 31.   All my life, I’ve heard people say, “I don’t know what to say, what to do when someone dies.”   Here are my thoughts from what I’ve experienced.

First, what helps:  just be there in whatever way you can.   You don’t have to say a word other than, “I love you.  I loved George.”    That’s enough.   If you can help in anyway, find out and do it.   With George in the hospital so long, I asked church friends to sit with him so I could rest and they took from 10 AM to 1 PM so I didn’t have to worry he was alone.

George’s family was wonderful.  His sister, Diane Perrine Coon, was here for fifteen days and stayed with George for hours.  She kept me interested in news and politics which we both enjoy.   Her daughter Alison was here for four days, then returned for the funeral.  She’s a marvel at cleaning and sorting and putting stuff away.  That was greatly appreciated.   Diane, Alison and I watched endless reruns of The Big Bang Theory which lifted my spirits.   Wayne Barnet, George’s best friend  from church camp, was here for nearly two weeks.  When George could still communicated, he asked Wayne to come.  He and LaDonna came.  We all traded sitting with George.  Wayne took the early shift and other times while  Diane sat with him in the late afternoon.  I visited a little in the morning, more in the afternoon, and Alison drove me over in the evening.   Then George’s brother Bill–who doesn’t like to travel–brought the gift of his presence for the funeral.   

What to say in a time like this?  Words are not necessary.  See what needs to be done and volunteer to do it.    Actions tell of your love and concern.

If you can’t do go to the funeral or sit with someone in the hospital, send a card.  They mean a great deal.  If you can go to the visitation, make an effort.   During the 6:00-8:00 visitation at the funeral home, the number of friends–from our church in Austin, from the church George served in Burnet, from my writers’ group–who came filled my heart with appreciation.  I was overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and caring.  At nearly eight o’clock, I looked up to see my long-time friend Sharon Hammond enter the funeral home.  She’d driven all the way from Houston.  I can’t tell you how much that meant.   Ellen Watkins, my writer friend from Houston, came for the funeral and returned to spend the weekend with me,  Tracy Wolff, another writer friend, helped me sort through George’s clothing on Thursday.

And Facebook and email help.   I posted daily on Facebook so people would know what was happening with George and people posted:  former students, friends I hadn’t seen in a long time,  Even an, “I love you” meant a great deal.  Just seeing they’d posted had great meaning.

For me–and I say this only for myself because others might not feel this way–I preferred a card, note on Facebook, or an email to a phone call.  My life had narrowed to two things:  be with George and go home to relax with the kitties.   Talking on the phone exhausted me.   An “I’m praying” call was appreciated but I truly couldn’t handle reporting in length on George’s health at that time.

Don’t forget the family.   Because I’m not an organized person, I’ve often sent a card weeks or months after a death.  Sometimes I even do that on purpose.  People tell me those are appreciated.  The mother of a high school student who died said she knew I hadn’t forgotten her son and that meant a great deal to her.

What doesn’t help:

Don’t try to explain God’s plan.  George and I had a wonderful life together.  After nearly 47 years of marriage, I’d like you to celebrate his life and mourn his death, but don’t attempt to explain why this happened.   I know that as sick as he was, he’s in a better place.  I also know I’d rather have George sitting next to me and  watching basketball.  To me, that’s the best place.

Many years ago, a friend had both parents died within an hour in the same hospital.  A friend of her parents said, “If you had more faith, they wouldn’t have died.”   This statement haunted her for years.   Another friend lost her infant son to leukemia.  Her family told her God was punishing her for conceiving the child out of wedlock.  Don’t try to explain.  Just love and care and support.

I’ve heard people say to parents when their child died, “God wanted another angel for His garden.”   This could only make a parent think God is selfish to have taken their beloved child.   Platitudes, no matter how pretty they sound, are often harmful when people are grieving.

On television, someone in a hospital room tells the wife of the dying man, “You have to take care of yourself or you can’t take care of him.”   Not comforting.  Not helpful.  When the person I love more than anyone in the world is dying, I have to be with him as much as possible.  If I’m home, I’m thinking of him and want to be with him.    Because I’m realistic about my health, I did set up schedules and rested at home–but this is a platitude spoken by people who don’t know what it’s like to watch the light of your life burn lower and lower.  You want to–you have to–be there.

Do not lecture on what you think the grieving should do, in your opinion.  I was asked, “Are you eating and taking your medication?”  That was okay because in the midst of grieving, those can be forgotten.   But if you believe I should go to a movie to relieve stress and I say, “No”, don’t push.   I’m balancing my life and the few hours I had left with  my husband in the best way I can.   I don’t need a lecture about my anger or bad feelings or anything else.  In the first place, I wasn’t angry or harboring negative feelings.  I was in deep denial which protected me.  My only feelings were concern for George.  Don’t read into the grief of others what you’ve read or heard about suffering.  I wanted to shout, “Leave me alone.  I’m an adult.  I know how I have to handle this.” Unfortunately, I felt the need to be polite and didn’t.

Truly, you do know what to say.  You say what you feel not what you think you’re supposed to say.  You speak from your heart and soul.  You say,  “I love you” and act in love.


10 thoughts on “What to say and what not to say: A guide for funeral etiquette

  1. Oh, sweetie. These are such wise and true words, but I am so very sorry for the experiences that formed them. The hugs and love continue to pour your way.

  2. Thank you, Kris. You are one of the friends that was and is always there.

  3. I hope those who love you know how very brave you were, Jane, in the midst of terrible choices, in the hurricane of disasters one after the other, you held fast to love, and God said, above all things, the most important is love. Thank heavens the human heart can continue to love and to cherish even after death in those precious memories. Your steadfast love for George helped me through those difficult hours in saying goodbye to a wonderful, loving brother. You are a beloved sister.

  4. Thank you, Diane. You have long been a beloved sister. I can never tell you how much your presence meant.

  5. I was fortunate enough to have had George as my uncle. To me he was quirky and kind hearted, but most of all I found him genuine. He had the widest array of folks in his life – from every walk of life imaginable. He was the true definition of ‘WYSIWYG’ – What You See Is What You Get. I loved that about him. He had no pretenses……no biases.

    For likely selfish reasons I am thankful that I was able to be there before he died and that he nodded when Jane told him I had arrived. For me that was all I needed. Now, it may sound strange, I was even more blessed by being able to spend time with Jane, Mom and Wayne. I had such a good time! Big Bang laughing, making fun of Mom laughing, silly kitties laughing, rolled towels laughing and Wayne laughing – Really Wayne? ER visit in between wake and memorial service, in a state that neither of us live in, with the strangest Rx rules on the planet! LOL.

    I completely agree with Jane that in these times folks tend to say and do what they ‘think’ is proper – when in reality they can come off as insensitive and sounding silly. Funeral etiquette to me is allowing everyone the latitude to behave in what way is normal to them- without judgment.

    I saw Jane go between utter sorrow -to bossiness – to wonderful laughter having a great time chatting with old friends – gaining comfort from her writers group – Simply loving the story telling about George. Not from her grief, but in her smile is where I saw the amazingly strong woman I admire shine through.

    See, from my perspective George and Jane were two of the funniest people I know on the planet…. Without all that shenanigans at his funeral, it just wouldn’t have been the same. It wouldn’t have been ‘normal’ .

  6. Alison, for some reason, my blog would NOT allow me to comment. I had to come thru the back door. Yes, George was quirky, kind, funny, smart and genuine–and completely accepting. I am so glad you were here, too–for George and for myself. I don’t remember being bossy, however–but I do remember both the laughter and the hugs. I love you. Thank you.

  7. Jane, what a beautiful article. I remember very clearly talking on the phone with a friend of mine in 1999. Her younger sister had been killed in a car accident. We talked everyday, mainly me calling to just say hi and let her know I was thinking about her. Finally one night I realized we had been on the phone much longer than previous nights, and it was a fairly forced conversation. Finally I just said to her, “Teri. This sucks. I don’t know what else to say to you, but this sucks. This whole situation just sucks. I want to tell you she’s in a better place, or you’ll see her again someday…but that doesn’t seem like the right thing right now. I really just want to say this sucks, and I have no idea what else to say to you. I’d rather sit here in silence and let you know that I’m here for you than make up conversation.” She paused for a moment, then said, “Thank you. That was the exact right thing to say. I couldn’t have said it better.” And we sat on the phone for another five minutes or so, in silence. Through the years she has thanked me for that. Sometimes it’s scary to be honest, but usually it’s the best thing. It’s OK to not know what to say…..it’s not ok to pretend nothing is happening. (oh, and I’ve picked Louisville to win the tourney – I don’t think I should bet against George)

    1. You are right. This sucks. Thanks for sharing.

      And I think the choice of UofL was wise. I’m going with George’s team (and mine) as well.

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