The Etiquette Involved in Moments of Sorrow

Just as we celebrate life with weddings and births, we mark the sorrows of life as well. When we are faced with the prospect of attending a funeral, visiting a friend who is seriously ill, or talking with a dear friend who is going through a divorce, we often find ourselves at a loss for words. Our fear of doing or saying the wrong thing can keep us from being supportive just when our friends and family need us the most. Knowing the proper etiquette can help us be there when we are needed so that our loved ones can rely on us.

Death and Funerals

Your first impulse when you hear of the death of the spouse, parent, or child of a dear friend may be to call and offer your condolences and support. Then you may second guess yourself and fear that they are too busy with arrangements and already have family around them. Do not let the opportunity to contact your friend slip away. No matter how chaotic or busy things are, a brief call from you to say you are thinking of that person will mean the world to him or her. The key is to keep it short and sincere.

Simply say something like, "I heard the news about Daniel and I'm so sorry. I know you loved him dearly and we'll certainly all miss him. If there's anything at all I can do to help you, please let me know." Then offer something concrete you can do to help. "If you need me to watch the kids or take them to practice, just give me a call and I'll be glad to pitch in, and of course they're welcome to stop over if they just need a break. Please call any time, day or night, Christine."

That is all you need to say until your friend calls you. At that point, let your friend lead the conversation. Your most important contribution may be simply listening, picking up the dry cleaning, or making some phone calls. The person affected will let you know what she or he needs.

Flowers are often ordered for Protestant funerals. These can be sent to the home of the surviving family members or to the funeral home or church where the service will be held. Be sure to include a card offering condolences and signed with the names of all who sent it. In most cases, the funeral home will see that the flowers are forwarded to the grave site as well for the internment ceremony. Before sending flowers, read the obituary. Some families ask that a donation be made to a specific charity in lieu of flowers. If so, respect the family's wishes; when you contact the charity, be sure you specify that the donation is being made in the specific person's memory. The charity will prepare a card and send it to the family recognizing the donation and acknowledging who made it. Flowers are never sent for Jewish funerals, although donations are often requested for charities for these as well.

Appropriate clothing when attending calling hours, a wake, or a funeral is anything dark and subdued. Solid color clothing is preferred for women, although prints are fine if they are not too bright or flashy. Men should wear dark suits or slacks and a blazer. Teenagers can wear dark shirts and slacks or dark skirts and blouses, with children simply wearing their nicest dress clothes.

Most people worry about what to say at a funeral or calling hours when they offer their condolences. The key elements are actually quite simple. You do not have to be poetic or eloquent to offer meaningful condolences to someone. Keep these elements in mind:

· how sorry you are for the person's loss;

· how much the person who has passed will be missed by those who knew him or her;

· how much you, in particular, will miss him or her. Include a particular story or incident that illustrates what that person meant to you. It should be a pleasant, uplifting story;

· that you will keep the family in your thoughts or prayers.

Serious Illnesses

Serious illnesses, injuries, or surgeries are draining not only for those who are suffering the direct effects, but the family members who are caring for them, directly and indirectly. The constant strain of worrying, the financial stress and balancing work and visits to the hospital, or caring for the patient at home can add up to exhaustion. Keep in mind that there are many people whose lives are affected in the aftermath of serious illness.

Interested in learning more? Why not take an online Etiquette course?

Hospital visits have their own etiquette. Bringing a gift is always thoughtful, but be sure to check with the hospital to see what gifts are allowed if the person is seriously ill. In some wards, such as the intensive care unit, flowers are not allowed. If the person has recently been on the mend and is bored, a light, easy- read book or a few magazines might be nice. Food, such as candy, should only be given after checking with the patient's doctor or nurse to confirm that it is appropriate; most patients are on a restricted diet, particularly following surgery.

Other courtesies to keep in mind when visiting the hospital:

· The patient will tire quickly, so keep your visit short. Do not burden the person with having to entertain you or having to stay awake. If the person seems to be tiring or the nurse comes in to give a treatment, excuse yourself and leave.

· If a relative has been sitting with the patient for long hours or days, suggest that he or she take a break to get a meal or coffee while you sit with the patient. If the loved one refuses to leave, offer to bring that person a meal from a nearby restaurant or some other refreshment.

· Do not call the patient to talk every day. You probably are not the only person calling, and constant phone calls will wake him or her from restful, much-needed sleep. It may also be disturbing roommates. If you would like to know how your friend is doing, call his or her family and ask for an update every few days and ask when an appropriate time would be to call.

· When visiting, keep your voice moderate so you do not bother other patients and be sure you talk about pleasant subjects. Share pleasant chat: Tell the person that someone just got a promotion or that your roommate seems to be dating a hot new guy, or tell a funny story about you dad falling into the swimming pool at the neighbor's picnic. Do not talk about depressing subjects.

· An MP3 player is the ultimate contribution to alleviate boredom. Check with the family to see if the patient has one. If the patient will be in the hospital for several weeks, see that she or he has one. You might offer to download some new tunes one evening and bring it back the next day to give him or her some new music to enjoy.

Do not forget when someone returns from the hospital that the person will probably be recuperating for a while at home before she or he can return to normal activities. This is often when many people stop visiting or calling, so take the time to keep in touch during this crucial time. Sending flowers to greet them on their first day at home is a wonderful gesture, as is a visit when the person is going stir-crazy on the couch.

Long-term or terminal Illnesses are particularly hard to cope with. The words "cancer" or "AIDS" are two of the worst in the English language. If you hear from someone else that someone you care about has been diagnosed with a potentially life-threatening illness, talk to a family member or someone familiar with the situation about the person's diagnosis before approaching your friend directly. Your friend who is ill may not want to talk about the situation yet or may not wish the situation to be common knowledge. You need to respect the wishes of your friend and follow her or his lead. Once you have been "let into the loop," offer your assistance in any way you can. There are innumerable ways you can help in the case of a long-term illness that is life-threatening:

· Offer to transport your friend to chemotherapy sessions when a family member is not available, do laundry, clean house, run errands, or any other chores that the person may not have the energy for.

· The occasional casserole is always appreciated; a hot, homemade meal is a welcome break for the whole family.

· If the person loses hair due to chemotherapy, do not comment on it. Also do not compliment a wig. Most people would prefer that you simply pretend it is their actual hair and allow them the illusion without comment. If someone asks for your opinion or jokes about it, then of course you can say something, but never bring up the subject yourself.

· Once someone knows he or she is dying, do not pretend otherwise. False reassurances do not help. Simply be there for your friend or loved one. If you share a faith in God, pray with that person. Hold the person's hand and offer your presence and support. In the last days, your love and touch are the greatest gifts you can give. Talk quietly when the person is up to it and sit with her or him when the person is tired.

· If a person you are close to is suffering from AIDS, be sure you are vocal to others about your support and care for the patient. While attitudes are changing, sadly there are still some who have misconceptions and may abandon those with this disease.

· Be sure that your friend has a support group and is seeing an AIDS counselor. If he or she is not, offer to find information and put the person in touch with the appropriate resources.

· Touch is particularly important when a patient has AIDS. Do not be afraid to hold the person's hand or give him or her a back rub or hug. An occasional human touch will be of great comfort.


Divorce is an emotional loss rather than a physical ailment, but it usually leaves the participants feeling as though they have been suffering through a long illness. If you are friends with both participants, ignore the temptation to take sides. Unless the reasons for the divorce were so unforgivable that you simply cannot ever have contact with the one of the parties again, do not encourage this behavior in mutual friends. If you are friends with only one side of a couple and he or she needs to confide in you, do not ever repeat anything that is told to you in confidence.

· You will want to be there as a shoulder to cry on, but do not encourage negativity or dwelling on the past. Instead, try to focus on the possibilities of the future and interest your friend in activities, outside interests, and his or her friends and children.

· When your friend starts dating again, do not ask prying questions or repeat any information about his or her personal life to the ex-spouse.

· Do not pressure a friend to date or meet someone before she or he is ready. The mourning of the demise of a marriage is a very personal thing and takes longer for some than others.

· Encourage your friend to take some time to focus on himself or herself. After a divorce, many individuals discover that they rediscover interests that they had put aside. Focusing on self-awareness and personal growth can be very empowering.

Regardless of the loss, the most important thing you can do is to be available and willing to do whatever is needed for the person who is grieving or ill.