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.
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.
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, www.trucare.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/ten-ways-to-express-your-sympathy.pdf