The best advice for what to say after a death — keep it simple and speak from the heart.
By: Jessica Campbell
1 month ago
When someone you care about is grieving, it can be hard to find the right words. Many of us hesitate to say anything to the bereaved, worrying that we’ll say the wrong thing. You don’t have to say much. But whether in person at the funeral, or in a condolence note sent with flowers, it’s important to acknowledge the loss and express your sympathy. The best advice for what to say after a death — keep it simple and speak from the heart.
|What to say to a...||What to say after a...||What to say when...|
|Spouse or Partner||Sudden Death||Someone's Ex Dies|
|Child or Teen||Long Life||The Relationship Was Difficult|
|Parent||Suicide||You've Been Out of Touch|
|Coworker||Youth Suicide||Your Friendship Is Strained|
|Customer or Client||Pregnancy Loss||Condolences Are Belated|
|Stranger||Death from AIDS||You Never Met the Deceased|
|Dying Person||Pet Dies||Deceased Changed Your Life|
It can be hard to know what to say to someone who’s experienced loss, but individuals facing loss need to feel they’re not alone. That’s why it is so important to make personal contact, says sympathy expert Robbie Miller Kaplan.
“I don’t know what to say but this must be very hard for you.” Someone said this to Kaplan when she was going through a challenging time, and it was exactly the right thing to say. She was showing empathy, says Kaplan, acknowledging that even though she had never faced my experience, she understood that it was very difficult.
It’s important to break your silence and acknowledge the loss, says Kaplan. Communicate that you are sorry for their loss and, if appropriate, give them a hug, take their hand, or touch their arm.
Also important: listening. According to Kaplan, listeners are what mourners need most because it’s through telling our story that we begin to make sense of our loss. Listening supportively isn’t always easy, but it’s the best thing you can do for someone coping with the loss of a loved one.
So how can we listen more effectively with friends and family?
The more you listen, the easier it becomes. And someday, you will need others to listen to you too.
Grief expert Helen Fitzgerald offers these suggestions for what you can say to someone grieving:
Every loss, every griever is unique, and it’s helpful to know what to say in different situations. Here are things to say in specific circumstances to express condolences and comfort the bereaved, as well as what you should never say to someone who is grieving.
When someone dies tragically, unexpectedly, words may seem inadequate. It’s hard to know what to say. The most appreciated words, says condolence expert Florence Isaacs, are usually those that first come to mind when you hear the terrible news: “This is such a tragedy. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry.”
Unless you know the deceased and the family well, it’s best to keep it simple. But you can go beyond a basic “I’m so sorry.” Florence Isaacs suggests the following:
Such words are quite enough, says Isaacs, who also cautions to beware of platitudes like “He lived a very long life.” These statements can minimize the loss — no matter how long someone lives, it’s never long enough for the people who love them.
When visiting a loved one who is terminally ill, give a hug or take their hand and say, “I think of you all the time,” or just “I love you,” if that feels right, says Isaacs. You can share a favorite memory or pull out a photo album and reminisce together.
Ask open-ended questions that allow them to talk about their lives in the past (“How did you go from farming to selling insurance?” “What is your favorite place you’ve traveled?” “How did you meet Jean?”) or the present (“Tell me about hospice” or “What are you reading/watching these days?”).
Remember to listen and follow their lead. Be authentic and treat them as you always have. And resist the urge to ask, “How are you?”
Sympathy expert Robbie Miller Kaplan shares three helpful and comforting things to say to someone whose partner has died:
The death of a former spouse can be hard. Support the surviving ex-partner as much as possible, says condolence expert Florence Isaacs. Ask “How are you holding up?” or “How are you taking this?” Then listen quietly and attentively as your friend expresses feelings—positive or negative. You can also say, “This must be very difficult,” because it is.
If there are children from the marriage, recognize their loss. Share a memory or say, if true, “Your dad was always so proud of you” or “Your mom always loved you so much.”
To the deceased’s other family members, say “I’m so sorry” or share a positive memory. Even if you haven’t met them before, they will appreciate the thoughtful, gracious gesture.
The death of a family member is upsetting even if the relationship was difficult, says Isaacs, and it’s important to be caring and supportive when responding to these losses. Acknowledge the loss and offer sympathy without characterizing the relationship. For example: