Saying “I’m sorry” or “I’m sorry for your loss” has been an accepted way to extend condolences for just about forever. But it is hard to predict how someone who is grieving will react to those words.
Saying, “I’m sorry” or, “I’m sorry for your loss” has been an accepted way to extend condolences for just about forever. The words were said to me over and over again when each of my parents died, and when my husband succumbed to a long illness. And I appreciated them. Yet lately I’ve learned that some people react quite differently. They view, “I’m sorry” as a perfunctory, “canned” response to the death of a loved one.
A friend of mine, whose father died after a torturous battle with cancer, told me, “‘I’m sorry’ is about you, not me. It’s kind of patronizing and insincere, and made me feel like I had to cheer up the other person.” She’d much rather have heard the honesty of, “It sucks.” Which it did.
A nursery school director voiced another complaint: “‘I’m sorry’ is too general and seems to trivialize what’s happened. Kids say, ‘I’m sorry I pushed you in the playground.’ A death is not in the same category.” The bereaved didn’t lose a wallet in a cab or the keys or an iPhone. I’ve also heard the charge: “What are you sorry for? You didn’t do anything.” Some people get upset because, “I’m sorry” sounds like an apology and can feel burdensome.
Tiptoeing Through a Minefield
So what can you say that is appropriate? You want to show empathy, but that can be tricky. The right words also depend on the answers to questions like “appropriate for whom?” and “appropriate for what?”
The nature of your relationship with the deceased and/or survivor counts, too. If you’re an acquaintance attending a funeral, you’re safe with, “Please accept my condolences,” period. When writing or calling, you can change the wording to, “I heard about your sister. Please accept my condolences.”
If you are/were close to the survivor or the deceased, you have options. A building contractor appreciated someone saying at his father’s funeral, “I knew Marty so well. In the old days, we used to go to ballgames together. Sometimes he got us free passes.” Reminiscences like that bring the loved one alive.
If you didn’t know the deceased, you might recall a story the bereaved told you, as in, “I remember you talking about your father’s passion for deep sea fishing.” Note that this comment and the reminiscence preceding it do not assume anything about the quality of the father-son relationship. That’s important unless you’re in a position to know the family dynamics.
For example, a mother of two told me, “I didn’t ‘love’ my paternal grandmother. She yelled a lot at me and my cousins, and I hated it. I softened as she got older, but at her funeral, I didn’t want to hear how much I’d miss her.” In such situations, the words, “This must be very hard,” make sense whether the history was positive or painful.
Consider what happened, as well. When you frame condolences, you’re not going to say the same thing to a parent grieving the death of a child as to someone whose 90-year-old mother died.
To reduce the anxiety that we all feel in the face of a death, I’ve learned to prepare in advance and think through what I want to say to the bereaved. It also helps to:
- *Avoid assuming you know the person’s emotional state. Someone who nursed an ill loved one for years may be relieved by the death — or not. You have to be very close to survivors to understand how they are or aren’t reacting. The words, “I heard about John. How are you doing?” convey concern without pushing buttons. Also, bear in mind that the person can be in different states on different days.
- *Be aware that there’s a fine line between validating the experience of the bereaved and angering him or her. Never say, “I know (or understand) how you feel.” We all feel that our grief is singular. To a parent who has lost a young child, the words, “I can’t imagine what you are going through” confirm the enormity of the tragedy. An appropriate response to a sudden death might be something like, “This is an incredible shock.” Pause and then listen to the bereaved.
- *Remember the generation gap. “I’m sorry” is probably OK to say to someone in his or her 60s, but younger people may have different expectations.
One of our greatest fears is that we will say something dumb to the bereaved. The more you understand what’s going on, the easier it is to reach out and find a way to communicate.