On June 6, I participated in The Legacy Companies’ Network Meeting. I had the pleasure of hearing Amy Florian present on what to say and what not to say at a wake or funeral. It was enlightening to discover how many of the common words we offer at these difficult times are at best unhelpful and at worst upsetting to the grieving spouse or family. While all these sayings are well-intended, learning to express your sympathy more effectively and empathetically is vital if you want to be comforting and supportive to clients and their family members at these difficult times of transition.
According to Florian, 70% of new referrals come at times of transition. Therefore, knowing what to say is not only the sensitive thing to do, it makes good business sense as well.
Here are five things not to say at a wake:
- “I am so sorry.” This is a common statement to make at a funeral but puts the grieving client in the position of taking care of you and is a conversation stopper.
- “You have my sympathy.” Similar to “I am sorry for your loss,” this statement has no benefit to the survivor and does not open up a dialogue.
- “At least…. (he didn’t suffer, he was surrounded by his children, etc.)” or “Be grateful…(he died at home or peacefully, etc.)” Because you do not know the back story of the survivor or their religious beliefs, these types of statements can really miss the mark. While they may make you feel better, they do little to comfort the grieving person.
- “Time heals all wounds.” Time does not make the loss any less great and by saying this you are minimizing the loss and sadness the person feels in the moment. As time passes, the person continues to say goodbye and do the emotional work of grieving, but it won’t make the wound of the loss go away.
- “Call me anytime.” Again, while well-intended, this puts the responsibility for the phone call on the widow or widower. This person is already overwhelmed and is struggling to complete daily tasks. Instead, let the grieving person know that you will call them next week to check in. This shows support, that you care, and that you know that it will take longer than one day to grieve.
So what do you say? Express your sadness regarding the loss and share a story or memory about the person and then ask the grieving client about their favorite memory. For example, say something like, “I don’t know what you are feeling right now, but I was sad to hear of Bill’s death. I will always remember Bill for his big smile. What is your favorite memory of him?” This approach puts the focus and attention on the person who is grieving and also helps the client or the client’s family member share their stories of their loved one. Sharing memories helps the client celebrate the person’s life, recognize his or her death, and begin the long process of saying goodbye.
Want more of Florian’s wisdom? Check out her recently published book, No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life. I ordered my copy during her talk as it was clear her work is an important addition to the field and so helpful both personally as well as professionally.