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How to say the right thing at a funeral

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The last time you went to a funeral, chances are you told the grieving family members one of two things: “I’m sorry,” or “You have my sympathy.”

These are not the best things to say, and producers who attend the services for a client can do much better, according to thanatologist Amy Florian. Florian, who studies the psychological and social aspects of death and dying, spoke to NAILBA 32 attendees on this subject during a Thursday afternoon breakout session.

Florian noted that simple, common phrases often spoken at funerals quickly lose meaning to the grieving widow or widower during a service. She teaches financial professionals how to make a much more positive and memorable impact when they attend services for clients. While she offered many tips on what to say, she also stressed that there are a few things NOT to say. “I’m so sorry” is chief among them. This most common phrase puts you on a conveyor belt with everybody else saying this, so it is forgettable and loses its impact. Florian also points out how the other time you say “I’m sorry” is when you’ve done something wrong, which means it has a negative connotation from the person saying it. Finally, it is a conversation-stopper. What is the person supposed to say in response? “You have my sympathy,” and sentences beginning “At least…” or “You should be grateful that…” are also not helpful. “Time heals all wounds” and “Call me anytime” are others to avoid.

So what should you do when you greet a grieving widow or widower at the funeral for their spouse?

Florian says greet the person as warmly as your relationship allows. Begin with a double handshake – placing your other hand on top of theirs when you shake hands. If they are ready to hug, by all means. And unless you are absolutely sure they know who you are, introduce yourself.

Florian recommends starting your conversation with something like, “I came today because I care about you and I loved Jim. My favorite thing I’ll remember about him was that big, infectious smile…”

As long as the person is still engaged, you stay engaged. Ask her something she’ll miss about “Jim” – grieving people want to talk about their loved ones. Ask them what is something they hope people will remember about Jim.

Most people are uncomfortable greeting grieving family members at funerals because they’ve never been taught how to deal with it, and end up perpetuating the common phrases previously discussed. Producers who use Florian’s techniques can go to a service and distinguish themselves from all the people on the conveyor belt. They’ll remember you.

And you should remember that 70 percent of new investments and referrals come during times of transition. If you walk people through the toughest time of their life, you’ve got a client for life.