Tips for Offering Condolences

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Not sure how to offer condolences to a friend or relative following the death of someone close to them? Don’t worry. Most people aren’t sure what to do or say when someone dies.

Many folks fear they may say something insensitive or out of place, especially if they’ve never been to a funeral or wake. While this fear is understandable, it could be worse to not say anything at all.

So how can you express your thoughts in a way that is sensitive, sincere, and appropriate? Here are some tips that should help you out. 

1. Consider When & How You Reach Out

How you reach out and what you say should be informed by your relationship to the person grieving the loss. You might assume that calling, texting, and dropping by their home with a meal is a thoughtful, welcomed gesture. But we need to consider that people grieve in different ways, and it’s easy for people to get overwhelmed by the flood of condolences and offers for help immediately following a tragedy.

Casual friends and acquaintances: If there is a public wake or funeral several days after the death, you may want to wait until the event to express your condolences. If the service is pushed out further, or not for the general public, you may want to send a card, a brief email, or a private Facebook message letting them know they have your prayers or thoughts. It doesn't have to be Shakespearean. A simple “Thinking about you during this difficult time”, “Sorry for your loss”, “Call me anytime” or “I will call you in the next few weeks” can go a long way in helping a person through a challenging time. If you attend the wake or funeral service, keep your condolences warm and on the briefer side, unless they convey they want more interaction from you. These events can be overwhelming for the bereaved.

Close friends and family: As you'll know the grieving individual(s) more intimately, you'll likely know their boundaries better. They may even expect you to be one of the first people to call or be by their side.  You should still be aware that they may require a lot of quiet time in the coming weeks. Sometimes even the most outgoing individuals need a lot of alone time to grieve.

2. Share a Personal, Positive Memory

A pleasant way to express sincere condolences is by sharing a personal, positive experience about the deceased. At a wake or funeral, it is best to keep these memories brief like “He was always so nice and friendly to me”, “I enjoyed his sense of humor so much” or “I’ll never forget her wonderful laugh and smile.”

Perhaps you have a short story to share about a kind deed the deceased performed that may otherwise have gone unknown. Hearing the impact the loved one had on others can really make a difference to those who are mourning.

3. Try Not to Make The Loss All About You

Experts agree that one common mistake you can make in expressing condolences is making the grief about you or your opinions. Try not to express your sorrow by saying “I know how you feel” or “I can't imagine what it's like” or "I’m sure he’s in a better place.”  It can come off as disingenuous, or worse, it can trivialize the grief they are experiencing.

While these may seem like good or even sincere things to say, they don’t truly focus on the griever — they are really just expressing your own feelings or opinions which makes the loss seem more about you. When expressing condolences, focus on the person experiencing the more acute loss. 

If you knew the deceased well, and you’re also grieving the loss on a personal level, this does change things a bit. It’s natural to express your own, sincere grief. It’s healthy to cry. Just be aware of the individuals who had closer relationships with the deceased and try to support their emotional needs if they are having a harder time coping.

4. Make a Specific Offer

Some grief experts feel that saying ”Let me know if there is anything I can do” may place unnecessary additional pressure of the person grieving. It places the ball in their court.

Instead, make a concrete offer and be sure to follow through if they accept. Suggest you will bring over a casserole within the next few days or “I'll call for coffee next week.”

Many times those who have lost a loved one stay very busy in the days through and immediately following final services. They would very much appreciate, however, company or a conversation in the weeks following when things get quieter.

5. Be Prepared for Strong Emotions

Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we may say something that stirs a raw emotion. This can be especially true when consoling a close friend or family member.

As an example: Linda offers to drop off a meal for her good friend Janice who is mourning the death of her husband Peter. Janice lashes out, “I wish someone helped out when Peter was still alive! I didn’t have time to cook when I was taking care of him!”

In this case, Linda clearly hasn’t said anything wrong —she just hit a nerve of resentment. Janice didn’t feel supported throughout the illness of her husband and wants to express that. Linda could choose to snap back and say “well, I was just trying to be helpful” and make Janice feel worse. Or she could choose to be empathetic, acknowledge Janice’s hurt, and express her sincere wish to bring a meal over for Janice, anyway.

The point here is to cut the grieving some slack. Be patient. And listen. You don’t have to offer solutions or answers. Sometimes the only thing they need is a patient, listening ear.

6. Remember, Words Aren't Always Enough

Maya Angelou is credited with saying “I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

There are times when a two-handed handshake, a sincere look in the eyes, a touch of the shoulder and/or a warm hug can convey your sense of compassion far better than words alone. When the loss is deep, sometimes a sincere “I'm sorry” with a physical touch is a profound way to comfort someone sidelined by grief.

Keep it simple and be sincere. And above all, make them feel loved and cared for by what you do for them in the days to come.