What to Say (and Not to Say) On a Death Anniversary

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Navigating how to acknowledge loss is tricky. Navigating loss experienced by friends, coworkers, and loved ones may seem trickier still. On the anniversary of someone’s death, how do you know the right things to say or do? In such a digital and connected age, the etiquette is varied. 

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Your tone should remain standard across all means of communication. Try to make your message one of reverence and positivity. How you greet them should depend on their level of comfort with their loss. And who they lost. Relationships are complicated both in the present and in memory. The last thing you want to do is upset the person you’re trying to comfort. 

Another thing to remember is to focus on the grieving person and their loved one. This is not the place to talk about your experience with loss. You can always have a longer discussion about your experience later. This is most important for comments that don’t occur in person.  

What You Should Say on a Death Anniversary

How you choose to say it is up to you — and if that sounds worrisome, we’re here to help! But the tone of your message should center around, “I’m thinking of you, I care about you, and I’m here for you.” Easy enough? We’ll walk you through several different scenarios. 

On social media

On death anniversaries, there are a variety of ways to post about someone’s death. You may see an initial death announcement, throwback images, photos, or long paragraphs. Be sure to look at a post carefully if you intend to write a longer message. 

Use common sense when it comes to punctuation. It sounds like a small thing, but it can make a big difference. One exclamation mark shows enthusiasm. But several can come across as insensitive or even sarcastic. Here are a few more tips to help you get it right.

  • Include humor when appropriate: If the post is humorous, feel free to keep your message light. Something like, “They were always so funny! Miss their humor!” You can also share a funny memory you have of the person.
  • Add a compliment: You can never go wrong with leaving a compliment about a decedent. For example, “They were such a lovely person.” “They made the best cookies.” “They gave the best advice.”     
  • Add an emoji: If you don’t feel confident or comfortable leaving a written message, you can always opt for a simple “❤️”.
  • Keep it simple: Any of these comments are great: “I’m thinking of you!” “I’m praying for you.” “I’m here for you.”

On the phone or in-person

Sometimes it makes more sense to phone a friend or loved one on a death anniversary. Maybe your tradition is to get together for the anniversary. Or, you run into someone unexpectedly. These situations should be handled differently from social media interactions.

If you're in-person, you may have an easier time reading the situation. But you could be more nervous about saying the wrong thing. Let the bereaved person take the lead. They may want to talk a lot about their loved one, or they may appreciate your call or company. You can say something simple like; you’ve been thinking of them, and you care about them. 

 

Via text message or email

When sending texts and emails, consider your message carefully. Texts and emails don’t include intonation, so the tone is especially important. At least when you’re face-to-face you can further explain yourself. Or the person can understand your intent. 

Don’t send an error-ridden, casual, or inappropriate text or email. During a sensitive time, they may be less understanding when it comes to mistakes. How can you avoid such a slip-up? Take your time with your message, even if it’s short and sweet. Use care. Don’t use “text talk.” Those details will make the person feel seen and appreciated.

If the bereaved changes the subject to memes or something light, you can do so, too. But, showing respect and maturity is the best practice. When a phone call or email isn’t enough, consider sending flowers. You can include a short message with the flowers too.     

At a social gathering

If you’re at a social gathering to observe an anniversary it should be easier to know what’s appropriate. Just being there is often enough. In this situation, feel free to say simple things, like:

  • “It’s great to see you.”
  • “I’m so glad we’re all together.”
  • “I miss them, but I feel like they’re here with us.”

What if you’re at a social gathering for some other event, and you’re aware it’s a death anniversary? Tread lightly. The person may want to keep their grief private.  If they’re out and about, it could mean they want to be present and celebratory, not sad. If the person brings up their loss, feel free to say:

  • “It’s a tough day. I am glad to see you, though.”
  • “They would want to see you having fun.” 
  • “I’m glad you’re here. How are you doing today?”

What if a person does not bring up a death anniversary you’re aware of? Does it make you insensitive if you don’t bring it up? Not necessarily.

Asking how a person is doing and listening intently is enough. Take them aside and do so privately if you are with a large group. They will likely appreciate your thoughtfulness. 

At work

Talking with a coworker on the death anniversary of their loved one is a delicate situation. Always let your coworker take the lead. They may welcome the conversation. Some people handle grief very well. It all depends on the person, as well as the circumstances of their loved one’s death. 

Never bring up a death anniversary while in a group. If your coworker wants to address their feelings with the entire office, let them decide that. Instead, ask how they are, and tell them:

  • “I’m here if you need to talk.”
  • “Would you like to grab a coffee or lunch? It’s on me.”
  • “Let me know if you need help with any tasks today. I’m happy to help.” 
  • “I was thinking of you this morning. How’s the day going?”
  • “I understand today may be tough. Let me know how I can help.”
How do you want people to honor you after you die?

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What to Avoid Saying on a Death Anniversary

There are many great things to say to comfort someone on a death anniversary. And there are things you shouldn’t say. Some comments may be well-intentioned but can come across as insensitive or rude. Here are some examples:

  • Making jokes: Making an unwelcome joke is the biggest no-no. Joking about the circumstances of someone’s death will quickly ruin relationships. 
  • Acting indifferent: If someone comes to you, do not ignore them or disregard their feelings. Try to hear the person out, even if you don’t know what to say. You can even say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say.” Serving as a listening ear is often enough to comfort someone.  
  • Brushing past a conversation: If your coworker is at work on a death anniversary, give them some room. They’ll likely be distracted for a day or two. That project can wait. If it can’t, be a courteous teammate and offer to help them out. Do not press work-related issues, especially if they are trivial.   
  • Talking too much about yourself: You may have a similar experience or a loved one you celebrate. It’s OK to discuss this with the bereaved person. But make sure you give them the chance to speak about their feelings first. 
  • Complaining: Do not complain about having a hard day to someone who is grieving. Especially not about trivial matters. Avoid saying things like, “Kill me now,” even though you do not mean it literally. That kind of language can ruin a day that should be peaceful.
  • Asking intrusive questions: Do not ask about wills, money, or property left behind. If they bring it up on their own, engage in the conversation. But they likely want to keep those details private. You can ask how a person passed but do so with respect. For example, say, “If you don’t mind me asking, how did they pass?” Always gauge the mood of the conversation before you ask further questions.
  • Having strong opinions: Never tell someone they’re better off. Avoid making rude or offensive comments about the person they lost. Remind the grieving person of the good things in their life. Help them focus on the positive. 

When in Doubt, Get a Second Opinion

If you’re worried about saying the wrong thing on a death anniversary get help. Ask someone who has dealt with a similar situation. They’ll know firsthand what messages are supportive, and which ones aren’t. Though saying nothing at all sounds cruel, saying the wrong thing could be worse. 

Remember the intent of your message, however, and you should have no issues. Show that you’re thinking of the person, and you care about them. That is what really matters.