There’s something about funerals that brings out human frailties. People mean well, but we can say the dumbest things at a funeral. After thirty years in ministry, I have a list of my top ten dumb things people say at a funeral, not in any particular order.
“He/She is in a better place”
Sometimes that phrase makes people feel better, but it can also make some people feel worse. For one thing, not everyone believes in an afterlife. To ask grieving people to pretend they believe something may comfort the “comforter,” but it is better to accept the grieving person on their own terms. The phrase is unhelpful for another reason. The survivor is already feeling abandoned, to hear that their spouse has already moved on and is partying in the afterlife may not be what she or he needs to hear.
“God never gives us more than we can handle.”
Actually bone cancer is more than most people can handle, as is torture and murder, as is the loss of a child. This is another case of the “comforters” comforting themselves.
“God must have needed a ____ in heaven.”
This one isn’t always hurtful, but it can give a strange view of the afterlife. If the deceased is a plumber it can sound like heaven has crummy toilets. If the deceased was a proctologist, it can raise even more serious theological issues. If the deceased was a child and one says something like “God needed a little angel,” it can leave lasting shrapnel in an already devestating wound.
“Everything has a purpose.”
When people say this cliche, it is usually to make themselves feel better, not the grieving person. To rationalize why an brutal accident happened leaves one with a pathological God, which can be much harder to cope with than just saying “stuff happens.” Life is sometimes unfair, to make excuses for a tragedy can make the grieving person feel very alone.
“I know how you feel.”
If you hear someone saying this at a funeral, take them to the side and politely say, “no you don’t.” This is usually the opening for the “comforter” to talk about a loss they have suffered in their own past. It is painful to watch a grieving person have to listen to someone else’s past problems at such a painful time. Remind the comforter “this isn’t about you.”
“He looks so natural.”
He may look peaceful after a long time of suffering, but he probably doesn’t look natural with a wax coating. This is the kind of phrase we wouldn’t possibly think to say if it were true, like “Joe, your hair piece looks completely natural.”
“Did he/she know Jesus?”
Yes, people actually ask this question at funerals. As strange as it is for some fundamentalists to grasp, bringing up the possibility that a griever’s beloved may be in eternal torment is not helpful. And if the deceased was Jewish or atheist, it is perfectly appropriate to pepper spray the comforter. As they cry out in pain, you can say, “God never gives us more than we can carry,” or “everything happens for a purpose.” That will make them feel much better.
“You should be happy she’s in heaven”
Again some people don’t believe in heaven, but this response can also be heard to mean, “stop grieving you make me uncomfortable.”
“Life goes on”
Sometimes this responsee can be helpful- if it’s heard as saying “you’re going to get through this.” It is true that time heals most wounds, but life doesn’t have a fast foward button. We get to our future healing by grieving now. Letting a person go fully into their current grief is usually much more helpful than distracting them with tales of future happiness.
“How are you?”
After thirty years I still slip up on this one. What I mean to say is, “are you getting through this? Do you need anything from me?” Asking this question to a devastated person can sound like we are clueless about their pain. Of course the answer is, “I am miserable.”
All communication in times of grief is trial and error. What helps on one day hurts on another. The point is to let the grieving person know we care. We do that, by letting them set the tempo and the agenda of our conversation. And, in all my years of doing this work, I’ve never found words that are as helpful as loving and attentive silence.