When my husband passed away, people said the strangest things. I know most folks were genuinely concerned about my children and me, but some of their attempts at consolation—and some of the questions they asked — left me dumbfounded.
My husband, Johnnie, was a fourth generation funeral director. When I married Johnnie, I also married the job. As a funeral director myself, and while working alongside my husband for more than 20 years in the funeral business, I have a lot of experience with death—and how people respond to it.
I suspect a lot of people are just plain uncomfortable when it comes to death, and they blurt out things without really thinking about what they are saying. Or maybe they think people who work in the funeral business, people who spend their lives surrounded by grief, must somehow be immune to death and the pain that accompanies it.
Here’s just a sample of what I heard—and what you should never, ever say to someone mourning the loss of a loved one:
1. “He is in a better place.”
Really? As though life with me had been that bad? Johnnie never complained about being married to me. And he seemed really happy while he was here on earth. Telling someone who is grieving that the deceased is much better off . . . dead — even if he is floating around heaven — doesn’t make my heartbreak any less painful.
2. “It is better to be widowed than divorced.”
Hmm . . . ? I’m really not sure about that. I don’t think either option is something anyone wants, and trying to compare the two is like saying that one person’s pain is not as significant as another’s. At the end of the day, most women I know would agree that, given the choice between widowhood and divorce, they’d much rather just be happily married.
3. “Will you have to sell your home now? Call us if you want to sell your home!”
Perhaps comments like these are intended to be helpful. They’re not. When people called to ask about my home (and there were more inquiries than you might imagine), I simply said this: “If I decide to sell our house, you will see the sign in the yard.”
4. “I bet it is hard to sleep in the bed at night without him.”
Ouch. Yes, the bed is empty, but some combination of two dogs and three girls usually fill it on any given night.
5. “I don’t know how you are able to go to events and functions all by yourself. How do you manage to go to church after you had his funeral there?”
When you lose a loved one, it is difficult to do almost anything. And yes, it was hard to go to church after I’d had Johnnie’s funeral there. But I knew I didn’t want to stay home alone, and church is where I found the comfort, strength, and support from God and my friends.
The best thing you can do for a person grieving is to offer to take them to events, invite them to dinner, or go to a movie with them. Sit with them in church or Sunday school. Do these acts of kindness not just weeks after the death occurs, but months and even a year later. Getting back into “life” is never easy, but the love and support of my friends made it possible.
6. “You look tired. You must be overwhelmed. You should probably seek some counseling.”
How do you respond to something like that? Yes, I am tired. Yes, I am overwhelmed. My entire world was just shaken to its very core. I absolutely need counseling! How else could I be expected to process Johnnie’s death and still have any energy left to cope with the people who keep trying to comfort me and give me advice on how to deal with death? I was beginning to think I must have been Job’s sister!
7. “Do you think you will marry again? I know someone you should date. You still look good. You really should think about getting married again.”
The grass hadn’t even started to grow on Johnnie’s grave before all my friends and neighbors started trying to fix me up. Please, when a friend loses his or her spouse, give it some time. I resolved not to date for a year, and even then, it was hard to sit down for dinner across from someone who wasn’t Johnnie. Tell a grieving widow that she looks good, but leave it at that.
8. “Have you thought about having sex with someone else? Are you worried about having sex with someone else? Maybe you should just go out and have sex!”
Um, okay. I wasn’t sure where to begin answering questions like these. I guess I hoped that the look on my face and the fact that my jaw hit the ground when my mouth fell open might be enough to steer the conversation back to something more pleasant. Like the weather. Or even terrorism. After all, I was raised in the South, where it is considered bad manners to talk about money, politics, and sex. Especially to the newly bereaved.
9. “Are you scared to sleep alone in that house? Are you afraid someone will break in?”
Never ask this question. I was already overwhelmed, a bit panicked, and exhausted from having to deal with all the things that come with losing a spouse, and now someone added the fear of a burglar breaking into my house in the middle of the night to my list.
The good thing was that I had an alarm system, a dog, and God to protect me. Plus, I had a gun — and I knew how to use it.
10. “How long do you think it will take you to get over him?”
This was my favorite — cough sarcasm cough — question, and one that I heard more times than I cared to. One lady actually informed me very casually, as if she were discussing the weather, “You know, Dee, I know it to be a fact that it takes a person five years to get over a death of a spouse.” I looked at her and thanked her for wisdom, all the while thinking to myself I don’t think I will make it for five years.
How long does it take to get over the loss of someone you love? I don’t know. I don’t think you ever really do.
So what do you exactly say to someone who has lost a loved one?
A well-respected, fourth generation funeral director named Johnnie Oliver, who just happened to be my husband, taught me that there are only four simple words to say to someone during difficult times: I am so sorry.
And then just listen.
I might not have understood the power of those four little words—“I am so sorry”—had I not found myself on the receiving end of so many condolences and so much advice. But trust me.
Dee Oliver is the socialite widow of John Oliver, who was a fourth-generation funeral director and the impeccably mannered proprietor of the largest funeral home in southeastern Virginia.
Deeholds a degree in mortuary science and writes about death (and surviving the loss of someone you love) in her blog, Going Out in Style. She is the mother of three daughters.
Dee is the author of The Undertaker’s Wife with Jodie Berndt. In The Undertaker’s Wife, Dee draws from her wealth of experience to provide candid and often hysterically funny advice on dying well and surviving the loss of those who have gone before. Her insights on the common ground of grief, survival, and the ever-present faithfulness of God (to all of us, regardless of our race, religious upbringing, or socio-economic background) will help readers prepare for one of life’s only certainties—and do it with wisdom, grace, and a healthy dose of joy. Available wherever books are sold.