Dos and Don’ts when Someone Dies.

Last week the post I wrote about my grandmother back in May was re-posted in her honor.  She passed away several weeks ago.  For as many times I have had to live through the tragedy of saying goodbye to a loved one, I never took the time to think about the etiquette involved for the people around the person grieving.  For lots of reasons I had a great deal of responsibilities surrounding my grandmother’s arrangements and as a result became a figurehead for the family.  Lots of people looked to me for information that I didn’t always have and I found myself often in charge of making decisions on behalf of my grandmother based on what I thought she might want.  It was a very strange and humbling experience.  It did leave me with some advice based on my own personal experience for the next time you come in contact with someone who has lost a loved one.

Do offer your condolences.  A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” speaks volumes.  If you have a personal story about the deceased person please share it with their family members.  My husband’s mother died 5 years ago and he still has every card with a personal story he received saved.  Even if you have seen your grieving friend shortly after the death, follow up with a card.

Don’t get personal or heavy handed with the sympathy.  This might sound off, but I honestly found no solace in hearing about how someone else’s grandmother died when I was grieving my own.  Likewise, don’t go on and on with heavy sympathy when offering your condolences.   For me, I spent the better part of a week on the edge of tears.  I could keep myself composed if people were brief, but the longer people talked or made it about them the harder it was for me to hold it together.

Do offer your assistance.  The grieving person has lots to deal with and is probably under a mental fog that makes organization confusing at a time when it is crucial.  When offering help be as specific as possible.  “Is there anything I can do?” is great, but “I’d like to help, can I XYZ?” is much better.  BFF offered to come pick me up from the hospital if I didn’t feel comfortable driving.  My cousin’s wife offered to handle arranging family pictures    If your friend is forced to handle the difficult task of emptying a deceased person’s home after their death offer to help.  This task was utterly overwhelming for me in a way that I didn’t anticipate.  Assistance with this task was invaluable.

Don’t ask inappropriate questions or make comments based on assumptions.  You’d be surprised, but there were many people who asked me how my grandmother died, as if that was any business of anyone outside my family.  To be sure, if I want you to have the information I’ll give it to you.  Also, many people made comments like “she won’t be suffering anymore” or “she’s in a better place”.  Unless you know specifically one’s cause of death or their loved ones’ personal feelings on the afterlife it’s best to refrain from such comments and revert to “I’m sorry for your loss”.  Likewise, if you have a personal history with the deceased that may not be favorable, do not share it with their loved ones.  I had a rather uncomfortable conversation with a distant relative at my grandmother’s service who felt inclined to tell me some not so nice things about my father who has been dead for 36 years.

Do show up.  This is one of the most important life lessons I have learned.  Being there for someone in their time of sadness is something that I guarantee they will never forget.  If you have a friend who has experienced a loss and you can attend the services, do it.  Take the time to go through the receiving line and introduce yourself to the deceased’s family and make a connection about how you know that person or their family member.  It brought me great comfort to stand in a sea of people and now that they were all their to honor my grandmother and that some of my friends were there to support me.  Never doubt that a seemingly small act on your part could be seen as a truly great one for someone else.


I hope you will find this advice helpful.  I’m sure there are other tips for these situations that I’ve forgotten, please feel free to share them in the comments.

10 thoughts on “Dos and Don’ts when Someone Dies.

  1. I am sorry for the loss of your grandmother. Thank you so much for posting this. I wish dealing with death didn’t feel so awkward for so many of us, but it just does. A coworker’s son passed away suddenly just before the holidays. I sent a card of condolence, but when I saw her in the office recently, I felt all thumbs. I can’t agree more about making an offer to help specific. When my dad passed a few years ago, everything was such a blurr. I couldn’t make any decisions beyond what was put in front of me. Having someone specifically say “I’ll help with XYZ” makes things just a little easier.


  2. Cora, I’m sorry for your loss. Thank you for posting this – it’s very helpful. I’m trying to find the right way to be there for a few friends who are going through some stuff right now and it’s tough to know what to do to help (and to realize that sometimes you just can’t help – or fix it).


  3. Thanks so much Cora. There is still so much awkwardness around death, I hope this helps make it a touch easier for us all to be around it, since we all will be. May you continue to find peace and comfort as you grieve. Hugs!


  4. This is so generous of you, Cora. EVERYONE feels uncomfortable around grieving people, and your little handbook is brilliant.

    One of the hardest things for me after my father died was that everyone went on with their lives and didn’t talk about him any more, after all the ceremonial stuff was over. This was especially true for me because he lived in Philadelphia and I lived in CT. When I came back to CT afterward, I wanted to put a bumper sticker on my car that said, “Ask me about my dead father”!


    1. Thanks Randi. I agree that we should continue speaking of the deceased long after they are gone. No one talked about my father after he died, I’m sure it was just too painful but as a result I know very little about him.


  5. Right on. Thank you, Cora. My father passed away unexpectedly this past September as a result of a motor vehicle accident. Agreed that someone should not suggest that the deceased is “in a better place”, although their heart may have been in the right place. I don’t say that to scold those who may say that, because, heck, sometimes people don’t know what to say to the grieving. And I think the most wonderful things, hands down, by far, were the stories people shared with me about my Dad or pictures that they had of him. One of my best friends lost her step-father in an unexpected accident just weeks after I lost my father, and I tried to remember what was important / not important in my own experience. I appreciate you sharing this. I’m sorry for the loss of your grandmother. Xoxo


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