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.
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?
- Remember that to listen well, we need to be silent.
- Make time to visit in person or chat on the telephone.
- Open with, “I’ve been thinking of you and wanted to see how you are doing today.”
- Listen intently, facing the speaker and making eye contact. Keep a neutral expression.
- Encourage the conversation by nodding and acknowledging their feelings (“I can understand” or “That must be hard”)
- End the conversation by saying, “Let’s talk again soon.”
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:
- “I’m so sorry to hear that John has died.”
- “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
- “We will all miss Sally; she touched so many of our lives.”
- “What I am feeling right now is hard to put into words.”
- “He was such a creative person, and I am so sorry he died.”
- “I too have lost a son, and I am so sorry.”
- “Our love and support will always be here for you.”
- “I will keep you in my prayers.”
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:
- “I just heard about your father’s death. I send sincere condolences.”
- “Please accept my condolences on the death of your father. You are in my thoughts.”
- Add details as appropriate: “I remember you talking about him” or “You mentioned him the last time we met”
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:
- “Tell me about him.”
- “I miss him, too.”
- “Here’s what I loved about him” or “Here’s something special he did that I’ll always remember.”
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:
- “I just heard about Ron’s death. What a shock this must be.”
- “I remember you mentioning your brother on several occasions. With sadness, I send my sincere condolences.”
- “I’m so sorry to hear about Audrey. I can’t imagine what you have to deal with.”
- “I’m sorry about your sister. This must be rough.”
- “It’s so sad to hear about Mark. It’s hard to believe this could happen to such a young man. My heart goes out to your son.”
- “I’m thinking of you at this difficult time. With sympathy on your loss.”