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If you build it, they will come. 

~Field of Dreams

“What Happened?”

Standing by her coffin at the visitation, one of the things I remember people asking my Dad when my Mom died in 1970, was “What happened, Tony?”  “How did she die?” 

Mom died during childbirth of an amniotic fluid embolism – a blood clot.  A rare condition where the amniotic sac is ruptured during delivery and amniotic fluid enters the mother’s bloodstream, killing her. And, unfortunately, something that is still taking mothers during childbirth today.  A very sad outcome from what should have been a wonderful day of welcoming a new baby boy to our family.

I heard my father repeat over and over the details of her death.  And saw how hard this was for him. 

You’ve probably either asked this question or been on the receiving end of it a funeral.

I’d suggest this is another one of the “Never Say These Six Things – well-meaning but hurtful expressions of sympathy.”  The person grieving shouldn’t have to explain their loved one’s death over and over and relive those details. 

If you need to know how the person died, ask someone else. Ask the Funeral Home Director or another family member or friend who isn’t quite so close.  Satisfy your need to know what happened in that way.

If you are close to the family, be the one to step in to shield them from the query.  Be the one that offers the explanation to those interested, so those nearest that are grieving don’t have to provide the explanation.

This is especially true when young people die.  We lost my nephew, Luke, last year at only 38 years old.  My sister Betty endured so many questions about his death, which she didn’t have answers to at the time, since he’d died suddenly, alone in his apartment.  Months later the lab tests showed he’d had a massive heart attack due to an undiagnosed heart condition. 

But at the funeral, she didn’t know – only that it was from “natural causes.”  She had people ask her all kinds of horrible questions.  Like, “Was he sick?” “Did he commit suicide?  Was it from drugs?  Was there foul play?”

None of which she should have had to answer.  I tried to intersect and shield her, but there were many that came through anyway.

And these were well-meaning people that came to pay their respects, people that loved Betty and Luke.  People that just didn’t think how their words may make her feel and how hard the answers over and over were for her. 

So, dear readers, let’s all commit to taking “What happened?” out of our things to say to someone grieving.  Instead, find out another way. Better to simply be there for them and offer your heartfelt condolences for their loss.  That’s always appropriate.

If you’d like a presentation for a group that you belong to on “Never Say These Six Things” please contact Lisa at the Heartlinks Grief Center office at to arrange a speaker.

Be Blessed,


Ellen Krohne, author of We Lost Her, available on 

Heartlinks Grief Center volunteer and Family Hospice board member

“We Grow Stronger Together”


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