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Guide for Funeral Directors:
Communicating with Bereaved
Relatives and Friends

Grief is still a taboo topic, sending some running rather than acknowledging someone’s pain.

As loss is experienced by the majority of people, it’s quite incredible that one thing most of us aren’t taught is how to support others going through grief.

A survey by SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity, found that over half (56%) of Britons are scared they will say the wrong thing to someone who is grieving, while over half (53%) find it uncomfortable or awkward to know what to say to someone who has lost someone.

Unless you’ve experienced a loss in your life, grief is not likely to be at the top of your conversation starters, so this guide is designed to help you navigate the helpful things to say and do when others are in an emotionally vulnerable place.

Carry on reading to find out how to communicate effectively, ask difficult questions, and explain options and services in a kind and gentle manner.
 

1) Listen

 

One of the hardest and yet most important things to do when supporting someone who is bereaved is to resist the urge to fix things.

When we see someone suffering, we want to make things better. We come up with logical reasons why things happened the way they did, or we might share our own experience thinking it might help - but it doesn’t.

If they are in deep mourning, there is little you can say to alleviate their pain. However, there is something you can do that will make a significant difference, you can be present and listen, really listen.

But we’re good at listening, right? We listen all the time, every waking minute of every day. Our family, colleagues, friends, music, TV and so on - listening is second nature. But are you REALLY listening?

The level of attention to listening that grievers need goes beyond our everyday listening skill, but can be learned.

Here are some pointers to help you.

2) Be fully present

Remove any distractions from your mind. Plans for tonight’s dinner don't matter, the urgent work issue can wait, even preparing what you’re going to say next can prevent you from giving your full attention.

Being fully present means your body language, your facial expressions and your vocal signals show them that they are your sole focus, and will encourage them to share how they’re feeling.

3) Remove judgement, comparison or expectations

Listening without judgement, comparison, or expectations takes practice. If you are fully in the moment, you will notice when your feelings are being triggered, and you’ll be able to reign them in.

Everyone’s grief is unique. No two people will grieve the same, because no two people share the exact same life experiences.

Remember, just because they may not be mourning like you have or would, doesn’t make their grief, or your grief any less valid.

4) Practice empathy

Empathy is one of the most noble human attributes. It goes beyond the sympathy of feeling sorry for someone while keeping yourself detached from their situation.

Empathy can be uncomfortable because it means walking a mile in someone else's shoes.

 

To try to feel how they are feeling - not to review how you would manage the situation, but to simply share a little bit of their pain, and understand something of what they are going through.

5) Feel comfortable with silence

Here’s something else that might not come naturally, and will likely cause discomfort too.

Silence doesn’t always need to be broken, left alone it can be an opportunity for them to collect their thoughts, or to work through their feelings.

Often, just being there is enough, and the silence can signal that you are there for them, not to impart some well-worded wisdom, or to get busy trying to fix things in an attempt to avoid the intensity of your own feelings.

6) Resist the urge to fix things

Practical support is essential, but when it spills over into advice like ‘you‘ve got to keep yourself busy’ or ‘you must be strong for…’, it can become more about making yourself feel comfortable with the situation.


7) Initial Words to Say

Remember ‘TED’. 
Tell me
Explain
Describe

These words will help open up conversations and will let the griever know you’re ready to listen.

Sometimes the person grieving won’t feel like talking at that particular moment.

 

But by acknowledging what they’re going through, you’re signalling that you’re there for them to share their feelings and stories.

8) More useful words

  • What happened? (Except with a suicide loss)

  • Can you tell me a little about it?

  • I can only imagine how… painful/devastating/heartbreaking that has been for you.

  • I'm sorry, it's awful.

  • There are no words of comfort that will help right now.

9) Ones to avoid

Don't say any of the standard platitudes which are actually to make YOU, rather than the bereaved, feel better that can come across as insensitive,  for example:

  • "She had a good life, a good innings, she's not suffering any more, she wouldn't want you to be sad.”

  • Don't offer a religious interpretation, e.g., "She's with Jesus. She'll be watching over you."

  • Don't say "Time heals" or "move on." Don't say, nor imply, that it helps to let go.

  • Don't say "I'm here for you" unless you will be. Many people can feel let down having heard that.

  • Don't say, 'I understand,” then tell a story about your own or someone else’s loss.

However, the worst thing you can do is just ignore or avoid them.

10) Establish Trust and Empathy

Use the person's name who has died  rather than impersonal terms like 'the deceased.’ This shows respect and acknowledges the individuality of the person.

Approach each interaction with genuine care and empathy.


Express your condolences sincerely. A simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" can go a long way in offering comfort.

11) Create a Comfortable Environment

 

Ensure the setting is quiet, private, and free from distractions.
Offer tissues, water, or any other comfort items they may need during the conversation.

12) Ask Difficult Questions with Sensitivity

When discussing sensitive topics, such as embalming or cremation, approach the conversation with care.


Frame questions in a gentle and understanding manner. For example,

"Would you like to discuss options for preparing (insert the person’s name)?" rather than "Do you want the deceased to be embalmed?"

Provide information about the options available, explaining the process and its implications clearly and patiently.


Validate their feelings by saying things like "I understand this is a difficult decision" or "It's okay to feel overwhelmed."

13) Offer Support and Guidance

It’s quite common for anyone going through a bereavement to have a short attention span.

 

With this in mind, provide precise information about available services and options, but avoid overwhelming them with unnecessary details.


Be patient and understanding, allowing them the time they need to make decisions.

14) Respect Cultural and Religious Beliefs

 

Be mindful of the family's cultural and religious practices and beliefs.
If you're unsure about certain customs, ask respectfully and offer to accommodate their preferences.

15) Follow Up and Follow Through

 

After the initial conversation, follow up with the family to check on their well-being and see if they need further assistance.


Ensure that any arrangements made are carried out according to the family's wishes and preferences.

16) Maintain Professionalism and Boundaries

 

While it's essential to be compassionate, maintain professionalism and appropriate boundaries in your interactions.


Respect the family's privacy and confidentiality at all times.

Communicating with bereaved relatives and friends requires a delicate balance of empathy, sensitivity, and professionalism.

 

By approaching conversations with care, actively listening, and offering support, you can help alleviate some of the burden during this difficult time and assist families in remembering the person who has died with dignity and respect.

If you feel that the person you are supporting needs additional help, please refer them to Grief Specialists.

About Grief Support Hubs

Grief Specialists is a community of grief professionals trained in how to help people deal with loss.  Our website contains lots of free resources, guides and articles to help people with loss of any kind.

Our goal is to help funeral directors deliver exceptional after-care to grieving families. To achieve this, we have created Grief Support Hubs, a co-branded after-care grief service that increases referrals and improves customer loyalty.

We also have a Find a Specialist directory covering many different types of loss. You can also find us on social media where we are always happy to answer any questions, or just listen.

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