Talking about death is difficult for many people. In fact, it’s so difficult that one doctor wrote in the Journal of the American Medical Association that ours is a “death-denying society.” Because we want to pretend death doesn’t exist, we don’t know how to talk about it. This can affect us in many ways: we may not know our loved ones’ funeral wishes; estates are left in disarray. But the effect I’d like to talk about today is how the fear of facing up to and talking about death makes us uncomfortable with those who have lost a loved one. This fear is so strong in some people that they won’t even attend the wake or calling hours.
Attendance at the wake is an enormous comfort to the family. When people come to the wake to pay their respects, they are showing that the family’s loved one was cared for and respected. Where some people have difficulty is when it comes time to express their condolences. If you have difficulty with death, you might become quite anxious about saying the right thing. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be difficult – nobody expects you to be eloquent; you just have to be sincere and genuine. How you say it is more important than what you say.
First, if the family doesn’t know you, introduce yourself. Explain how you were acquainted with their loved one.
Then, offer a short, but heartfelt condolence. Some examples:
- “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
- “I wish I had the words to comfort you.”
- “Is there anything I/we can do for you?”
- “He/she was a wonderful person.”
- “His/her loss is deeply felt by all of us at (company).”
If you have a short – and appropriate – anecdote about the deceased that the family would like to hear, tell it and then move on to let them receive other guests.
Some things you should avoid saying:
- “Time heals all wounds.”
- “I felt the same way when my mother/aunt/dog died.”
- “You can have more children.”
You don’t have to remain at the wake for a long time – only long enough to pay your respects and let the family know you cared enough to attend. It’s a small gesture for you, but one that will be long remembered by the deceased’s loved ones.