What to Do When You Are Unable to Attend a Funeral

Consoling friends
  PeopleImages / Getty Images

Has someone you know lost a loved one, but you’re unable to attend the funeral? Do you feel bad about not being there for someone you care about?

You want to support the family who is grieving, but there may be something preventing you from attending. Things come up that are out of your control, and no one should fault you for this.

Don't feel bad. Instead, put your energy into showing your sympathy in other ways. 

Remember that you don’t have to feel guilty because there are other ways to let the family know you care. Whether you’re out of town or you have other obligations you can’t get out of, there are some things you can do to show your sympathy and support for the survivors.

Send a Sympathy Card

One of the best ways to show how much you care and offer your condolences is to send a well thought out sympathy card with a heartfelt condolence message. It doesn’t have to be long. In fact, a short, simple note with two or three sentences letting those who are in mourning know that you’re thinking of them can provide quite a bit of comfort.

You’ll want to address the family. Then express your regrets over not being able to attend the funeral, but don’t go on and on about it with excuses. Instead, get to the point of expressing your sympathy. End it with the promise of a phone call or visit, but make sure it’s something you can follow through with. Make a note on your calendar to do what you promised.

If you have trouble coming up with the right words to say on the card, jot down some thoughts about your relationship with the deceased on some scratch paper. You can mention something kind about the person or a brief anecdote about something you experienced.

For example, if you enjoyed fishing with the person, you can say you always enjoyed the conversations you had while sitting in a boat on the lake. Perhaps the person's wisdom helped you through a difficult time in your own life. Or maybe he taught you a valuable life lesson. Write a rough draft of your note and read it aloud before writing directly on the card.

Bring Food

It’s difficult enough to have to deal with grief, so many people either don’t have time to cook or think about eating after a loved one passes away. Bringing a meal, a tray of vegetables and cold cuts, or even a dessert from the bakery shows that you care.

Be thoughtful of the people you’re bringing food for. Make sure it’s something they like, and if you don’t know, you can ask. In order to make the process as easy as possible, don’t use a dish or pan that you want them to return. Instead, use disposable products or offer the platter or bowl as a gift. Make it clear that they don’t have to return it.

Send Flowers or a Plant

Most people appreciate flowers that they can take home later or place on the gravesite after the funeral. Another option is to send a live plant or tree that can be placed in the ground in honor of the deceased. If you have the time and money, you can have a small plaque engraved with the message “In honor of (name of deceased)” to place by the plant.

Donate to a Cause

Many families ask for a memorial donation to a cause instead of flowers, so it’s a good idea to honor this request. Perhaps the deceased had a passion for a charity or had a disease that has a research foundation. There may be a trust fund for dependent children. Whatever the cause, it’s good form to donate something, even if it’s a small amount. Most charities will send a card to the family of the deceased to let them know you donated.

Sign a Virtual Guestbook

Many funeral homes provide an online service for friends and family members to sign and offer their condolences. Find out if this is available and sign it as soon as you’re able to. Surviving family members often find comfort in the messages, and having it available online gives all of them an opportunity to go back and read people’s thoughts and sentiments.

Remember that an online guestbook is public, so don’t post anything you wouldn’t want everyone to see. Never write anything that might embarrass the family of the deceased. Express your sympathy, but keep the rest of the message positive and heartfelt.

Pay a Visit

After the funeral, visit the survivor or family of the deceased. Whether you bring flowers or a meal, it doesn’t matter, as long as you offer your personal condolences and a listening ear. You shouldn’t stay long, but you can sit down and have a short conversation.

Make sure you keep your thoughts about the deceased positive and resist the urge to say anything that can be interpreted as angry or hurtful. In order to avoid triggers that might add to the grief, filter your speech. The family already has enough to deal with, and they don’t need negativity right after the funeral.

Offer Professional Help

If you have a special skill or trade, offer your time and assistance. For example, if you’re a plumber, let a widow know that you can help with small repairs. A widow or widower will appreciate whatever you’re able to do, and your act of kindness will let the survivors know you care.

You might not have special skills, but you might be able to cover the cost of something. Now is the time to be generous and help out by taking the stress off the family of the deceased.

Follow Up Later

The week or two following the funeral typically goes by in a blur for the surviving family members. Then suddenly, all the visits, calls, and cards may stop, leaving them to feel alone and confused about what to do next. This is a good time to call and ask if they need to talk or maybe go out to dinner. If there’s an uplifting movie showing nearby, you might want to invite them to go with you.

Send a Gift Card

Most surviving family members will appreciate a gift card to a movie theater or favorite restaurant. If you can’t afford it alone, there is nothing wrong with getting a bunch of friends or coworkers to go in on it with you. Make sure everyone who participates signs the card.

Help with Daily Chores

Often the family members of the deceased are in such a state of mourning that they are unable to do some of their daily activities. You can offer to assist with some of these things, such as mowing the lawn, cleaning the house, watching the children, or running errands. The more you can do the better. This is particularly helpful in the days leading up to the funeral and a few months afterward.

If you’re a member of a church or organization with people who knew the deceased, enlist the help of others. More people involved will bring a stronger sense of community to the surviving family members, and this will help provide even more comfort.