Knowing What to Say

What do you say when someone you know has died? The question is not abstract; sooner or later we all face this challenge. Finding the right words will be more difficult than you think. You knew the person and you can tell some stories. You assume you will be able to speak. But it is not as easy as it could appear.

When someone you know dies, powerful feelings inevitably surface, feelings for which you may not be prepared. You can feel overwhelmed, caught between needing to speak and struggling to find the right words. The question becomes obsessive: what do you say when someone dies?

As a minister who has conducted many funerals – over 60 in the past two years alone – I spend a great deal of time considering what to say about a recently deceased person. Of course, my church, like all places of worship, draws on religious tradition. There are prayers and readings from scripture. Our goal is to convey compassion and hope, grounded in faith. Our goal also is to design the funeral service around the deceased person’s ties to family and friends. As soon as we learn of an impending funeral, my church colleagues and I begin to ask: what should we say about the life we are planning to honor? With whom do we need to meet?

Not every life is easy to honor. Death brings back memories from long ago. Many memories in most funerals bring smiles and tears. But memories can surface pain and anger from the past. In one instance, a son had been estranged from his father for over twenty years. Even though his father had died, the son could only say that he would not attend the funeral.

Even when family members gather, the alienation between them can be obvious. Siblings refuse to speak. Former spouses and partners sit in stony silence. When words flow they can be bitter, even accusatory. More than one shouting match has erupted at a funeral reception. Not long after one death, the will of the deceased prompted a law suit among family members. Death does not resolve anger or resentment. If the deceased did not give in life, then the estate must give after death, a few people reason. Ministers and funeral directors could write lively books recounting the strange dynamics of some funerals. Sadly, every detail would be true.

Fortunately, most of the time, animosity does not mark a person’s death. The person was loved and is sorely missed. But when I ask what must be said, the response still falls short of what I hope. My colleagues and I often meet with families about offering “remembrances” or “eulogies” in the funeral service. Even when we urge people to speak briefly, respectfully, and appropriately, things can go off track.

Asked to recall her father’s life, one woman began her thoughts before a packed church with these words: “Kind. Patient. Warm. Sensitive. Gracious. Courteous. Quiet. Nurturing.” The list was long and endearing.

But pausing to shuffle her notes she added with a wry smile: “Oh sorry. Wrong parent.” When the laughter stopped, she proceeded to a loving tribute. But her point was made: her father was a forceful personality.

Rarely do people craft descriptions of the deceased person with such skill and subtlety. More often remembrances, whether in places of worship or in reception halls, take a more superficial course. People are unsure what to say. It becomes tempting to recall the parties, the hobbies, how well the person fished, their favorite sports teams, how much of a family the deceased person left, and how much they were loved. People read lengthy poems of dubious relevance. People even burst into song or become frozen and weep. Hearing people try to speak can be painful.

Most efforts to memorialize a person revert to giving information, often repeating the words of the obituary. This effort is safer, and usually well intentioned. But it can sound like the entry in a high school yearbook. The lists of likes and dislikes, achievements and skills, can go on and on. These reference points are places to begin, but often nothing else is said. The question becomes pressing: what should you say when someone you know has died?

A more probing approach is desirable, but it is possible to be too candid. We don’t need to know how much the deceased person always drank at the office Christmas party. Why bring up the younger brother’s jealousy? Do we need to know that gambling caused the divorce? We’re relieved to learn that after the family intervened, treatment for alcoholism finally worked. We did not need to hear about the failed business that never should have been launched. What people feel they must say sometimes leaves me bewildered and saddened. The point is to go deeper into insight and honesty. So what should you say about the person who has died?

These days, some families want nothing said at all. They don’t even want a funeral or observance of any sort, even a private gathering. Their outlook can be clouded by disregard for religious life or disdain for ritual in any form. At times the deceased leaves instructions that there be no observance. But the need to gather and to remember usually takes over. Something needs to be said. Somehow people need to be with one another. They struggle for the right words and the right sort of occasion. The question is still there: what do you say when someone dies?

It is the question that will not go away. It cannot be avoided. Perhaps you have heard of the grief process. In response to any loss, especially death, you and I will grieve. Grief is more than sorrow, although that is the most likely feeling. Grief leads you on an unintended emotional journey through various stages. They include denial (“this can’t be happening”) to anger (“look what you have done to me now”) to bargaining (“if only I had….”), then to true sorrow (“I really miss her”). Finally, there can be acceptance.

At times, the grief process becomes stuck in one or another phase: denial and anger are the most likely. You can become stuck when you bottle up your feelings, trying to return to your old routines without taking time to grasp what you feel. A professional counselor may be needed to escape being overwhelmed. Once the process resumes, it moves naturally toward healing and acceptance. That is, you do not forget the person or the death that launched grief. But like an old scar, the hurt that was caused no longer can control. You can accept that this person has died. You can accept that life can be unfair and too brief. You can acknowledge the deceased person did not do what they might have done. You also can be thankful for what this person gave to you and to others. With healing and acceptance come perspective and peace.

So what can you say when someone you know has died? What matters above all is that you make the effort to participate in an occasion that remembers the life of a deceased person. All of us deserve that remembrance. Unfortunately, it is not always possible to attend a funeral or other observance in person. But, thanks to new technology, funeral remote attendance is now possible, and it can help you and loved ones feel part of the occasion, even if you or they are hundreds of miles away from it. Look into it if you or a loved one needs it. Being present, remotely or immediately, is the key step. It is a gift to the deceased person and their loved ones.

The next step, ideally, with a few friends or in a public funeral and the reception that may follow, or at one you are attending remotely, you have the opportunity to describe the deceased person’s best qualities. What was this person like on life’s best day? It is a natural question. Don’t all of us want to be remembered for our strengths, our talents, what we accomplished? If you are able, give the person you knew this next gift. Your presence and your thoughts matter.

But some relationships are complex. Your feelings are mixed. In that case, give the rest of us a summary of your experience of the person. Be fair. You don’t need to bring out old details or grievances. Tell us what this person really was like, what made this person tick. What mattered to this person? What were the values, the pursuits, that set this person apart? Then tell us how this person made you feel. If you are able, tell us what you will miss about this person. Grief centers on loss. What have we lost with this person’s passing?

Your honest words, framed as objectively and as honestly as possible, help you and others to do something that is crucial: you are reframing your lives in the absence of the person you have lost. As a religious person and a minister, I believe that funerals are both for the deceased and for the living. Believing in a higher power, God, and in life beyond this life, I believe the funeral announces the ending of one life and the beginning of the next. I do not think in terms of judgment, of heaven and hell. I do believe that the truly evil among us have already excluded themselves, have alienated themselves from humanity. I am hopeful for those of us who have tried to muddle through life. God is love, and forgiveness, and healing. For the dead and for the living.

Regardless of your faith, or your doubts, the observance of a death gives you and others a way to regroup. The actual words that are uttered, as prayers or as remembrances, matter less than the fact that people gather to speak and to listen. We discover that we cannot go through life alone. We need one another. We need to be engaged in discovering our true selves and healing anything that divides us from each other. In the time of death, new life becomes possible, if we seek it together.

All that is necessary is for you to speak. Honestly, candidly, insightfully. As best you can amid the welter of feelings. As you do, and as others join you in remembering, new possibility arises. You can live in a different way. You can be with others in a better way. Carry forward the good things you received from the past. Leave the rest behind. In essence, this is what you should say when someone you know has died: we are in this together, and we can move ahead with fresh resolve. It is ours to choose. FBA

Reverend William L. Sachs, PhD has authored numerous books about exploring faith and its place in our evolving world including Fragmented Lives, In the Face of Difference, A Church Beyond Belief, The Transformation of Anglicanism, Restoring the Ties That Bind and others. Additionally, Sachs directs the Center for Interfaith Reconciliation at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Richmond, Virginia, is a Visiting Professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, has served Yale Divinity School, has been a Chabraja Fellow at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary and serves as a Voluntary Advisor to TribuCast™ a remote attendance system for funerals and memorials. Previously vice-president of the Episcopal Church Foundation, he has served as a parish priest in Virginia, Connecticut, and Chicago. He lives in Richmond, Virginia with his wife and their shamelessly spoiled dog.

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