Headlines from First Thoughts

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Funeral Etiquette

Respecting grief
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Originally published in the Knoxville News-Sentinel
Funerals bring out the best and worst in people. I have heard some of the strangest things spoken to the grieving. These statements are the most important things not to say at the funeral home.

The bereaved do not want to hear, "He lived long enough. It was time for him to go." "He would not want you to grieve like this." "I'm glad they died when they did. It could have been much worse."

A parent who has lost a child does not need to hear, "Be glad you had him for as long as you did." "Now he's God's little angel." "This must have been God's will." "God took him from us." "You can have another child." "Be glad you have the sibling."

The casket is not the venue to comment, "It must have been his time to go." "He looks so natural." "She doesn't look like herself." "They really did a good job on him."

Children who have lost parents should not be told, "She's not dead. She's just really asleep." "Now you have to be the man of the house."

When people try to have something to say, often their remarks about timing, theology, appearances and reality are better left unspoken. The grieving will tell you that the time of death is never good. No one dies at the right time or lives long enough.

"God" statements do not help either. They should be reserved for counselors and experts. The receiving line is not the time to become a theologian. Parents who have lost children or suffered a miscarriage do not need platitudes.

Even though another sibling might still be around, their presence does not replace a life lost. Children facing the reality of death are not comforted by denial of its existence. Their pain is only made worse by telling a child a dead person is sleeping or presuming that a child can mature rapidly.

A friend, however, can offer comfort during the process of grief when a comforter anticipates the needs of the individual. Every death is unique, and each experience of grief is like a snowflake.

Place yourself in the shoes of the grieving. Give them permission to say anything she wants to say. Hurting family members, like customers, are right every time. They might even say the things listed above as they work through their own questions. The best response from a friend is to speak with your ears, eyes, hands and heart. Listen.

Validate what the loved one has done for the dying person. Affirm how they cared, worked and persevered. Those standing in the receiving line usually experience a rush of adrenaline that bottles public displays of grief. Do not evaluate or assume someone is in denial if their public grief seems different than yours.

Ask open-ended questions that demonstrate the voice of experience without saying, "I know how you feel." Friends can meet common practical needs in the process of grief. Eating, resting, storytelling, praying and remembering work together. Ask, "When can I bring you a meal?" "How can I pray for you?" "How are your children handling this?" "How are you doing today?"

The funeral home is the place to pay attention and plan the process of comfort. The real journey through grief begins following the cemetery. Make note of anniversaries, birthdays and significant moments. A card, a phone call and a pre-planned lunch go a long way down the road. Through these actions, you are saying the words a grieving person needs the most: "I am here for you." At the funeral, you can offer the best gift you have - your presence.

Dr. William D. Shiell is the senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Knoxville and author of two books. His e-mail address is shiell@fbcknox.org.

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