“I’m sorry…but I just didn’t know what to say.”

If you’ve ever felt uncomfortable or awkward at a funeral, you’re certainly not the first. After all, attending a funeral is not an everyday event, and it’s not easy to know how to act, or what to say. Helping others deal with a loss is an aspect of human relationships no one ever teaches us, and many people find it difficult to appropriately express their sympathy and support to friends who are feeling the pain of bereavement.

The first step in knowing what to say is understanding the intense emotions your bereaved friends or family members are experiencing. The feelings that accompany a loss are well known, and they include anger, disbelief, guilt, sorrow, and finally acceptance. What you should or should not say and do depends on where they are in this very strong emotional process.

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell. Sometimes, different family members are dealing with widely opposite types of feelings at the same time. Fortunately, there are things you can do and say that are always appropriate, and certain things it is best to never say.

It is most thoughtful to pay a condolence call. Express your sympathy and be sure the bereaved person knows you are there to help in any way possible. You might be able to help with child or pet care, preparing food, or taking phone calls. In many cases the most help you can give is just letting the bereaved family know you are there for them. While condolence calls can be made at the funeral home, it’s proper to visit at almost any time, from the day you hear about the death to several weeks after the funeral.

The safest and most appropriate thing to say is a kind thing or two about the deceased. Use your own words, and try to include some reference to your relationship with the family. The bereaved person may or may not want to talk. If they do, it is normal for them to express their feelings, without really expecting much of a response from you. They may even ask questions that have no answer. Simply listen, and quietly express your understanding and sympathy.

When offering your support to a bereaved person, there are things it is best not to say. Avoid asking the cause of death, and avoid giving advice. You may mean well, but at times of great sorrow family members need to make their own decisions. Sometimes, people make comments that are supposed to comfort, but instead diminish the importance of the death. Saying something like, “At least now he’s not suffering any longer,” or “I know exactly how you feel,” is not helpful.

There are many other ways to express your support and sympathy to a bereaved friend or family member. Floral tributes are always welcome, as are memorial gifts to the family’s favorite charity or religious organization. The important thing is to remember that you are there to express your concern, and when you do, your own good judgment and sense of sympathy are your best guides.