Grief can be a challenge to cope with, and also to see happening before your very eyes. When you see a friend in pain, your first reaction may be to comfort them. You want to say the perfect thing after a death, and honestly, lots of people have trouble with trying to find the right words. In western societies, people struggle to talk about death and grief, so saying the right things is very important, but it's not always easy.
The most important thing to remember when offering sympathy is to be sincere when talking to a grieving friend. You don’t have to say the perfect things. Reaching out and showing them you care is all they really need. People sometimes send sympathy messages with little thought. Despite your good intentions, saying these phrases without carefully choosing the right words can be hurtful and sound ignorant to a grieving person.
It’s a good thing to know what not to say so you can avoid causing more harm than good. If you’re looking where to begin, read below. You’ll learn about some alternatives to keep in mind when offering condolences.
1. “It’s a blessing.”
You shouldn’t tell a person who just lost their loved one that it's a blessing. The griever hears “Your loved one was a burden and this is a relief for everyone.” Nobody wants to think of their loved one as a burden. Many caregivers would do anything to keep their loved ones alive.
Alternative: “They were so well-loved and cared for.” This message matches the viewpoint of the grieving person. You recognize the love they have for the person they just lost.
2. “They’re in a better place.”
People often say this in connection with spiritual beliefs. Even if the grieving person believes in heaven or a better place, this comment may not be exactly comforting. They want their loved one there with them, not somewhere else. This assumes a person is at peace with their loss in the bigger picture, when they may not be.
Alternative: "I’m sorry this is so tough for you." Your message honors how difficult it is to miss someone after they die. If their loved one was suffering before death, the grieving person may be relieved that their loved one's suffering is over. But the grief after the death is still real and strong.
3. “Let me know if you need anything.”
People dealing with the death of a loved one need help and support. Offering to help someone who is hurting is a great sympathy message to send. But when you give a vague gesture like this, you put a burden on the grieving person. When this person tries to think of what they could need, their mind goes blank. They need a lot. They need things they can’t have. They may quickly give up and avoid asking.
Alternative: "I can help you Tuesdays and Thursdays. Can I bring meals or do you need me to help around the house?" Make a specific offer. Assume they need help and pick a few options that cover basic needs. Meals, errands, and child care are good choices to start with. Once they see your willingness to help, they may have a few ideas beyond the basics.
4. “I know exactly how you feel.”
You might know how it feels to mourn the loss of someone you love. However, you don’t know exactly how someone else feels. Grief is a personal and unique experience. Many people share similar emotions and thoughts when they grieve, but grief is different for everyone.
Alternative: "I can only imagine how you feel."Your intent is to show empathy, an ability to sense and understand another person's feelings. Saying it this way shows compassion. It also honors the personal nature of the griever's emotions.
5. “Everything happens for a reason.”
What reason would their loved one have to die? You probably don’t have the answer or the reason, so this comment is best left unsaid. It harkens to the comfort of a larger purpose or a higher being. But this phrase rings hollow for a person aching to have their loved one back. They didn’t want to sacrifice anyone for a higher cause. Just don’t say this for any reason.
Alternative: Offer a hug and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.” This comment, with or without a hug, is short and simple. Sometimes fewer words are better. Grief is such a complex experience. A hug and a short expression of sorrow can be enough.
6. “You need to be strong now.”
What the griever hears is, “Don’t show your true emotions now. Cover them up to make other people more comfortable.” This puts an unhealthy box around the person’s emotions. A person’s ability to move through grief depends on a willingness to face their feelings. If they bottle up their emotions, grieving can take longer and cause more problems.
Alternative: "Whatever you’re feeling, it’s ok.” This comment honors the reality that grief covers a lot of different emotions. At any point, those feelings can overcome a person. If a person prefers to express themselves more in private, that’s their choice. And if their emotion comes out in public, let them know you understand and accept that.
7. “Time heals all things.”
Time makes grieving easier for most people. However, this statement offers little comfort to someone who has just felt the brunt of an emotional loss. For them, the present moment is overwhelming and their grief is constant. The griever has barely accepted their loss as real, much less thought about a brighter future.
Alternative: "Tell me a favorite memory about your loved one." This comment keeps the griever focused on real moments with their loved one. It’s a simple way to distract the griever from the weight of their pain. Reliving happy memories is an important part of accepting their loss. Your invitation makes it easier to take that step.
8. “You can always...”
This message tells the griever that their loved one is replaceable. They can always remarry, have another child, make new friends, or get another pet. While this may be true, the griever has no interest in anyone besides their loved one who died. This comment dishonors the importance of the griever’s loved one. To them, this individual has no replacement.
Alternative: "Your loved one was so special." This comment mirrors the viewpoint of the grieving person. They are worried about how to cope without the person they lost. Your comment states what they may not be able to put into words.
9. Telling a Story About Your Grief
You may feel like your personal story is helpful. You might think it lets the other person know that you care and understand. But this can make it seem like you are talking about yourself. A person who is grieving is only focused on their loss. Unless it’s very brief and followed up by something more helpful, this can come off as self-serving.
Alternative: “Take care of yourself. Can I call you later this week?” When someone is consumed with grief, it’s so easy to lose track of your personal needs. Grief is exhausting. It can be isolating and overwhelming. Make sure you offer a personal follow-up to call or visit.
9. Not Reaching Out or Saying Anything
Grief and death are awkward. It’s common for people to feel uncomfortable with grief. Some people allow this discomfort to get in the way of offering support to others who need it. You might feel you are bothering the griever by calling them or saying something at the funeral. Depending on how close you are to the grieving person, your lack of action can come off as uncaring.
Alternative: “I’m not sure what to say, just know that I care about you.” Feeling unsure about what to say? Sometimes there really are no words. Say that to the griever and they’ll likely understand. Don’t let your uncertainty hold you back from reaching out. Your genuine offer of support will mean a lot, even if you say little.
Say Something Supportive to Help with Grief
Your words of comfort are very important to a grieving person. Be thoughtful about what you say. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It just has to show you care. It can be as simple as saying, “I’m here for you.”