No amount of condolences can take away the pain of losing a loved one. But saying or doing the wrong thing can certainly add to the bereaved person's pain. It seems that condolence etiquette has fallen by the wayside. The funeral industry has sanitised death in a way that was previously unknown. Until the late 19th century, death was a part of everyday life. There were often photographs taken of the dead, lockets made of their hair and public mourning protocol. Death today is an uncomfortable subject; the awkwardness, shock and grief can render people speechless.
Upon hearing the news
Listen to the bearer of the bad news attentively before you interject with your sympathies. If you were close to the deceased, a simple “I am so sorry. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help” is sufficient. Be sure to follow up with the family to make sure you are available if they need help.
The death of acquaintances
If the decedent was an acquaintance or co-worker, you will probably hear the news from someone outside the family, such as your boss or a friend. In this case, do not immediately try to contact the overwhelmed family of the departed. Instead, plan to offer your condolences at the funeral, or simply send a card.
At the funeral
When speaking about the person who died, do not refer to him as “the body” but by his name. It is acceptable to tell funny stories about the departed, as long you don’t tell a story that would embarrass the decedent if he were to hear it. It is polite to hug or shake the hand of each family member. Relatives are usually seated in the front row for this purpose. However, sobbing uncontrollably on the widow’s shoulder is rude. Allow the family space and time to mourn at the funeral.
Sending a handwritten condolence is a practice that our culture seems to have lost. Sending condolences via e-mail is never acceptable. However, periodic e-mails to check up on the family are fine as long as you also send your written condolences. Sending flowers is a beautiful sentiment. Sign the flowers in a simple fashion: “With our deepest sympathies.” If the family has requested something in lieu of flowers, make sure you comply. Be sure to write on the sympathy note that no response is required. Some people feel obligated to send responses to sympathy cards when they should be dealing with their grief.
Going above and beyond
When people are grieving, they often forget to take care of themselves. Drop off a casserole, a pie or another heat-and-eat meal at the home to remind the family that you are thinking of them. Offering to drive the loved ones to funeral-related appointments is also helpful. If you do this, do not interject your opinion about the services unless your opinion is solicited.