Losing a loved one is a life-changing experience. Words often feel inadequate to express the mix of emotions you may have when you hear of someone’s death. When you feel that first rush of sympathy, it’s natural to want to reach out and offer comfort to the family.
Are you worried about getting tongue-tied or feel disappointed that you live too far away to connect with them in person? If so, here are several options for expressing your sympathy in a way that works for you. You’ll find your own method on how to help a grieving friend or family member now and for months to come.
Ways to Express Sympathy After a Death
There’s no single best way to express sympathy after a death. Regardless of your personality, your location, or your loved one’s needs, this list will give you some ideas to start with.
1. Send a card
Sending a sympathy card is a simple and easy way to share your sympathy. It may seem like a basic gesture that could get lost in the shuffle, but here are a few reasons why a card can be just the right thing.
First off, sometimes grief can be awkward and you might stumble on your words. With a card, you can take your time to write out your message. Also, some funerals and memorial services can be crowded, and the opportunity to visit with a grieving loved one can be limited. A card gives you a chance to write a longer message just in case you don’t get much time in person.
Additionally, if you live too far to visit, a card may be your best opportunity to express your sympathy in the early weeks.
Families often spend time before and after the funeral looking through cards. Funerals and visitation days can be long and overwhelming. Reading cards at a slower pace allows family members to read your message when they can take it in more easily.
2. Donate to a memorial or charity
If you want to share your sympathy with family but aren't sure how to show it, consider giving money to a cause the deceased person cared about. Not every family wants to handle lots of flowers or gifts as they grieve. Instead, many families create memorial funds that friends and family can donate to for several months after the funeral. Some have charities or local organizations in mind right away, but not always.
Donating money like this keeps the person's legacy going. And you know you're doing something positive that can line up with the family's wishes.
3. Attend a memorial service or visitation
Funerals and open house visitations offer you a way to directly connect with the deceased person’s family and friends. Families often provide many ways to interact and even participate in these events.
Some examples include:
- Speaking to the family in a receiving line after the service concludes
- Talking to friends and family at an open house with food
- Releasing balloons or bubbles as a group
- Performing music at the service, joining a singalong or playing music
- Taking group pictures of friends and families
- Bringing food or helping at a reception
- Participating in military rituals, for those who qualify
- Riding in processions with motorcycles or other special vehicles
For many families, memorial services in visitations can be reunions with other loved ones. Your presence at one of these events can be a wonderful way to share stories and talk about how much this person meant to you. And even if you attend to show and support the family, you can get much-needed social support and connection for yourself as you grieve.
4. Visit a grieving loved one in person
There’s no substitute for sitting next to a person when they need emotional support. If you can visit your grieving loved one in person, your time together will be memorable. Here are a few reasons why this can be a meaningful moment for both of you.
- Eye contact: You can convey so much sincerity with a few moments of direct eye contact. Seeing someone up close like that can make your visit feel personal, even if you don’t say much.
- Non-verbal communication: Often, words don’t seem to be enough when you’re grieving, and a person’s gestures and facial expressions can speak volumes. An in-person visit lets you see everything someone communicates with their body, even if they don’t know what to say.
- Physical touch: A hug or comforting touch on the shoulder can carry a lot of meaning. Physical touch can give comfort when emotion is too high for words. Sometimes that’s the one thing a grieving person really needs for a few moments.
5. Say something supportive
When it’s your chance to visit with the family, you might not be sure what to say. To avoid sounding awkward, insincere, or insensitive, pick one or two phrases ahead of time that feel right.
Here are a few that acknowledge the difficulty of grief and offer comfort.
- I’ve been thinking about you.
- I’m so sorry you’re going through this.
- I’m glad I could be here with you.
- We’re all going to miss (their loved one) so much.
- Our office/neighborhood/group won’t be the same without (their loved one).
- Take care of yourself, and I’ll be calling you.
- I’m ready to bring meals over to the house. Who can I talk to about that?
- We need to get together when everything slows down. I’ll call/text you.
6. Send a sympathy gift basket
Sympathy gift baskets can be a welcome sight to someone who feels exhausted from grief. Grieving takes a lot more mental and physical energy than most people expect, and it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. A little comfort food can be helpful when guests are around or a meal seems like too much work.
Sympathy gift baskets can include fruit, chocolate, or other types of snacks. Some may include figurines, keepsakes, or books as well. You can make up your own basket out of items you personally know the family would appreciate. This is a great opportunity to include local favorites and special homemade treats. Sending a sympathy gift basket can be a thoughtful way to express your sympathy if you can’t be there in person.
7. Invite a grieving person out of the house
Grief can become a heavy lonely burden sometimes. At some point, a grieving person will try to come up for air. Grief and sadness can get better, but sometimes it takes a boost from someone else to get things going.
Be that person and invite your friend or loved one out of the house. Help them remember what it’s like to enjoy simple things like a lunch date or watching a funny movie together. Get your blood pumping with a bike ride or a brisk walk. Even if the griever has been doing some of these things, your invitation can make it a social outing. This connection and support can make moving forward a little more comfortable and fun.
8. Make a specific offer of help
When someone is grieving, it’s easy to toss out the phrase, “Let me know if you need any help.” You may feel like you’ve shown sympathy with their loss, but a vague offer like this can ring hollow. People overwhelmed by grief are often too numb or still in shock to follow up with everyone who extends a general offer like this. Instead, make your offer specific and practical.
Dealing with a heap of emotions is hard work, so these kinds of gestures can be appreciated even after the funeral is over.
- Taking children to school or daycare
- Making or organizing meals
- Doing house cleaning or regular chores
- Running errands, picking up medication, getting and sorting the mail
- Check for seasonal home repairs or maintenance needs
- Make sure bills are being paid on time
- Driving people to appointments, picking people up from the airport
- Keeping track of gifts, money donations, cards
- Setting up displays or reception areas
- Bringing extra household supplies
- Looking after small children, keeping them occupied, providing snacks
9. Reach out again in the future
Grief doesn’t go away once the funeral is over. Even when the activities and family visits are done, your loved one will need support. They may have better days and worse days, but they still need social connection. Show your loved one they aren’t alone by staying in touch and reaching out regularly.
As time goes on, you can be with them as they figure out their new normal. It’s OK if they don’t necessarily talk about their deceased loved one every time. Sometimes, just doing an enjoyable activity with someone they care about is the best thing at the time. And when you say goodbye, tell them you’ll call again soon.
10. Just listen
Sometimes the best way to show your sympathy and concern is to be quiet and listen. Your loved one may not have much to say. You may sit with them in silence at times, and that’s OK.
Avoid pressuring them to talk or filling the space with chatter. Let them know it’s OK if they don’t feel like saying much. No matter how awkward you feel, this moment isn’t about making you feel more comfortable. Find a way to be in that moment whether they speak or not.
If your loved one does have something to share, be quiet as much as possible. It’s good to let them know you’re listening and paying attention, so a response or brief comment at times won’t be too distracting. But your purpose in listening is to let them tell their story or to let them fumble for words. It’s their grieving process, and your role as a calm and trusted listener is essential.
11. Acknowledge their emotional pain
This idea goes with the tip above. When you’re sharing your sympathy and comforting someone you care about, put the focus on them. Pay extra attention to everything your loved one may be experiencing and reflect that back. Some good comments may include:
- “I see that you’re in pain, and I wish I could make it better.”
- “It hurts to lose someone you love, no doubt.”
- “It’s so hard; I can see you’re really hurting right now.”
Your discomfort and reactions are all valid, but they don’t have a big role right now. Acknowledge your emotions and put them aside. Here are a few things you may felt tempted to say or do but should avoid:
- Saying you know exactly how they feel. Your feelings may be similar, but you aren’t inside their mind and heart. Saying this shows you aren’t connecting with their experience.
- Telling a story about someone else you know who went through something similar. This is a way for you to relate to your loved one’s pain. But unless your experience can solve a problem or answer a direct question they have, it takes the focus off of their emotions. Keep these stories to yourself for now.
- Telling them it’s OK or that they’ll get over it. It may not be OK right now, and grief isn’t something you get over. So even if you mean well, those comments often come off as tone-deaf and diminishing.
12. Be a calming and supportive presence
Being sympathetic toward someone can take emotional energy and focus. Watching someone go through upsetting emotions isn’t an easy or pleasant experience. So you may want to prepare your mindset and emotional state before offering sympathy and comfort.
Be prepared for your emotions to bubble up, and keep a few methods in mind for calming yourself. Deep breathing, focusing on the other person, and walking can all help.
You may still become more emotional than you expect when talking with a grieving person. So don’t worry if you start to tear up or break down. That’s part of connecting and being genuine.
However, if you begin to talk non-stop or appear highly unsettled in some way, you may need to address your emotions first. Grief is rough, and it’s OK if you aren’t ready to be there for another person right away.
13. Share a positive memory of their loved one
You can’t take away someone else’s emotional pain. It’s part of their grieving process, and you can’t control how they feel. But you can give them something more pleasant to think about for a moment by sharing a warm or positive memory.
- Tell a funny story you’ve heard or were involved in, even if it’s been told a dozen times or more.
- Share your perspective on an important moment in that person’s life.
- Tell your loved one what the other person meant to you.
Hearing someone tell a heartwarming story can trigger mixed feelings, so it may appear that you’ve hurt your loved one without meaning to. It may remind them of happiness or laughter from that moment. But it may also be a reminder of how much they miss that person. This is a normal part of reconciling a deep loss, even if it looks painful. Your effort to remember joyful moments can help.
14. Offer to drive
When a person experiences deep grief, the shock they feel can make ordinary tasks difficult. Driving takes awareness and concentration, which are often in short supply when a person is going through deep grief. Some people may feel disoriented or like they’re living in a fog for a few days or weeks. This could make them uneasy getting behind the wheel, or others may be concerned about their ability to drive safely.
To take this concern out of the picture, offer to drive the person you want to support in the early period of their grief. It can be hard to accept help, especially if a person thinks it makes them look helpless. Gently invite them to accept your offer more than once if they decline.
Try suggesting that you run errands together. This can make your idea more about spending time together instead of being about their needs. You may also extend your offer to guests coming from out of town who may not always have transportation available. These ideas can make your offer more appealing and helpful.
15. Give them space and privacy
All the tips so far have been about being actively present for someone in grief. Yet sometimes, giving someone space is more supportive. Grief can get ugly. A person might cry, get angry, or lose track of their daily routine. Sometimes a person needs the freedom to react in privacy. Let them know you’re available and that you’ll reach out again, but not right away.
Space and privacy do have their limits when it comes to grief. If you’re concerned because someone hasn’t emerged from their house in days or aren’t sure if they’re taking care of themselves, be more persistent about making contact.
This may be a sign of complicated grief, a severe form of grief that may include symptoms of trauma or depression. This is a disorder and requires extra support and treatment, so recognizing it is essential.
Trying to Show Sympathy in Your Own Way
There’s no right or best way to show your sympathy when someone dies. The main purpose is to make a connection with family and friends to share your feelings. Your own expression matters to family and friends because it captures a glimpse of their loved one’s life.
Whether you plan to visit in person or share your sympathy from afar, a little thought is all it takes to share your sincere sympathy.
- Cruise, Kathleen. “Ways to Express Sympathy.” Colorado University, trucare.org