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. 

Post-loss tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, handling their unfinished business can be overwhelming without a way to organize your process. We have a post-loss checklist that will help you ensure that your loved one's family, estate, and other affairs are taken care of.

What You Should Say on a Death Anniversary

This image shows examples of what to 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. 

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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 or a sympathy card 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.”
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What to Avoid Saying on a Death Anniversary

This image shows examples of 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. 

Death Anniversary Messages for the Loss of a Partner or Spouse

Regardless of how long the bereaved person and their spouse had been together, death will be incredibly tough. Romantic relationships are among some of the strongest bonds out there, and your loved one will likely need all the support you can spare. 

If the bereaved individual is single or newly dating, it’s important not to express anything about them finding a new partner or spouse around this time. Instead, make sure your sentiments are respectful of both them and the person they lost. 

Here are a few ideas for what to say on the death anniversary for a partner or spouse. 

1. “I know it’s a hard time of year for you and you may feel your life has a bit less love in it. I want you to know I’m here to support you through it.” 

2. “I admire your strength, especially on this day. I know it may not be something you want to show up and have, but you do, and it’s incredible. I hope you’re giving yourself some credit.”

3. “I hope you never feel alone even with losing [NAME]. I know they were such a big presence in your life — your teammate, your lover, your friend, all of it. That was such a beautiful thing. I’m here to support you in any way I can.”

4. “This is probably the worst day ever, but I hope we can turn it around later. If we want to cry, we’ll cry. If we want to yell, we’ll yell. Let’s celebrate like [NAME] would want us to. It’s my treat!”

5. “You are such a dear friend to me and I hate to see you hurting. I know today is such a hard day. I understand completely if you’d like to be alone or do your own thing, but you know that I’m here for a call or to get together. I love you so much.”

6. “I know nothing feels the same anymore. The happiness feels fake. Even the crying feels fake sometimes. I’ve been there, but I know that your hurt may not even be the same hurt as I’ve had. You are so much stronger than you think you are. You’ll get through today like every day and it’ll get a little bit easier with time, I promise.”

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Death Anniversary Messages for the Loss of a Parent

For most people, parents shape them from childhood. They’re often their first and some of their best friends.

Even if your loved one lost their parent at an older age or not unexpectedly, it certainly doesn’t make it any easier. They likely are missing that voice of reason or listening ear they could so often turn to.

Here are a few ideas for what to say on the death anniversary of the loss of a parent.

7. “I know how much your mom’s advice got you through. I’m no replacement, but I’m more than happy to give it a shot if you ever want to chat or vent about anything. I’m here for you today and every day.”

8. “Your dad was such a firecracker. I’m sure today is very hard for you without him. Shall we plan a happy hour at the beach [or other event] in his honor? Let me know if you’re feeling up to it, I understand if not. Love you.”

9. “How are you doing today? It’s OK to be angry, to be down, to be sad. If you want someone to come sit with you I’m more than happy to. Take care of yourself. I hope to see you soon.”

10. “I can’t believe it’s been a whole year since [NAME] passed. I’ve been thinking of you lately. I hope you’re doing well. Your mom was such a positive influence in my life and I can’t help but smile whenever I think of her. I hope you find some happiness today, too.”

11. “Today might be a little harder than you’re expecting, but I know you’ll get through it. Tomorrow might be hard too, but I know you’ll get through it. You’re so strong and I look up to you so much. [NAME] would be so proud!”

Death Anniversary Messages for the Loss of a Grandparent

Grandparents can have just as big of an impact on your upbringing as your parents, sometimes even more so.

The bereaved likely looked to their grandparent as a source of strength and wisdom. Those who pass away at older ages often lived rich, colorful lives — but that sometimes means leaving their survivors with days that are a bit duller.

Here are some ideas for what to say on the death anniversary of the loss of a grandparent.

12. “I’m sure you’re missing your [grandparent] today. [NAME] was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met. I loved walking by their yard and seeing them in the garden and stopping to chat. I hope you’re getting some sunshine where you are!”

13. “Your papa was such a hoot! I know he’s up in heaven with nana having a laugh at all of us down here. Let’s get together later to toast to them. Love you and see you soon!”

14. “Hi sweetheart, I wanted to check in on you today. I know it’ll be tough without grandpa, especially at dinner tonight. But remember, he said he’s always here with us and he loves us even from far away.”

15. “Today is your grandma’s day. We loved her so much. I know how much you miss her. We baked her famous cake recipe and we’d love it if you could come and join us later to have some. Take care of yourself.”

16. “How are you today? I know you might be missing your [NAME]. I hope you’re not feeling too sad. It’s tough to not see them, I totally understand that. I’m more than happy to hang out later if you’re feeling up to it or want to talk.”

17. “Just wanted to reach out and say I love you! I know today might be difficult.”

Death Anniversary Messages for the Loss of a Sibling

Losing a sibling at any age can be devastating. For many people, sibling relationships can consist of incredibly deep friendships as well — even those that didn’t get along as children. 

The same goes for step-siblings. Sometimes the closest family members are the ones not even related by blood. It’s important to be gentle with the bereaved person around this death anniversary.

Here are a few ideas for what to say on the death anniversary of the loss of a sibling.

18. “Today is going to suck, we know this. I’ve been trying to brainstorm how to make it suck less. I really think we should get together and treat ourselves and go all out. I think [NAME] would really approve, don’t you?”

19. “[NAME] was the best. I see so much of them in you. They’d be so proud of how far you’ve come these past few years. Willing to bet they would say, ‘See, you didn’t even need me!’ They’d be right. I love you so much. I hope you’re doing alright so far.”

20. “Hey kid, I know today will be tough. Your mom and I couldn’t sleep at all last night. We were saying that [NAME]’s ghost was visiting us. I hope you can still make it over for dinner this weekend. We’ll celebrate. You know [NAME] wouldn’t miss an opportunity to join us in spirit.”

21. “I can’t imagine how you must be feeling today, but I wanted to reach out anyway. You don’t have to respond or anything. I just wanted to tell you I love you and I’m praying for your healing.”

22. “I know you and your brother had a complex relationship, but I know how much you loved him — still love him. If you want to talk or anything, I want to let you know I’m here. Take care.”

23. “I realized what today was and knew I had to check in with you. No pressure or anything, but I’d love to take you out to dinner or do something fun soon in [NAME]’s honor.”

Death Anniversary Messages for the Loss of a Child

You may see it depicted in shows and movies — the pain of losing a child. If it’s something you or someone close to you has gone through, there’s likely no other pain like it in the world. 

Deciding what to say to someone who’s lost a child may be incredibly difficult. Where do you even begin? How can you possibly say enough? 

Like any well-wish, however, if you’re careful and genuine in your intentions you shouldn’t have any issues. Giving the bereaved some extra grace during this time is also very important.

Here are some ideas for what to say on the death anniversary of the loss of a child.

24. “The hurt, the anger, the sadness that you must be going through all over again today — I can’t imagine. I wish I could bear it all for you instead. No one deserves this kind of pain. What I will say is how much I love you and that you’re not alone. You will never be alone. Your angel is with us always.”

25. “Hi love, how are you doing today? I pray that your family is healing. I know the wound will never fully heal, but maybe that’s the point. Scars are what make us human, after all. Your baby is always in my prayers and I deeply feel they’re happy in heaven. Talk to you soon.” 

26. “The joy that your child brought to the world in such a short time cannot ever be measured. Something so precious should never have been taken so soon, but will always be alive in our memories. I hope you’re doing alright. Let me know if I can do anything for you.”

27. “Today is a day I’ll never forget. It’s really the worst. I wish you didn’t have to go through it. I hope you’re letting yourself feel what you need to. Take your time. Be gentle to yourself.”

28. “If there’s anything I knew about [NAME] it’s that they’d want a big bowl of ice cream today with all the fixings. You deserve to enjoy the sweetest things in life even though [he’s/she’s] gone. You’ll find [NAME] in the sweet things, trust me.”

29. “I hope you’re doing OK today, even though it may be even silly of me to ask. I’m not sure what to say, but I just want you to know I love you and I’m here for you.”

Death Anniversary Messages for the Loss of a Friend

Friends can be like a chosen family. Some of them you may feel you don’t even deserve, and losing one can feel the same. 

Sticking by your loved one’s side through the loss of their friend is a great time for you to step up and stand in. It’s not about replacing the one that they lost, but it’s in loving the bereaved in a spirit that the late friend would. 

Here are some ideas for what to say on the death anniversary of the loss of a friend.

30. “It’s OK to feel all the things today. I hope you’re allowing yourself to grieve. There’s no such thing as getting over [NAME] — they were one in a million. But you know what? So are you! Love you.”

31. “If today is feeling extra heavy on you, I hope you know I’m here to help you carry it in any way I can. I may not have known [NAME] for as long as you did, but I know why you loved them so much. Let’s get together for a beach trip in their honor soon.”

32. “Today’s not a very fun day, is it? I wanted to let you know I’m here to help you make it better. It won’t be easy, but you know once we get together we’ll be cracking up over nothing just like with [NAME]. See you later.”

33. “Being happy is something to be proud of. I hope you know that. Even with your loss, it’s OK to be happy. It’s great to be happy. That doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten them, it means you’re choosing to remember them, and you’re choosing to do so happily.” 

34. “I know [NAME] was our oldest friend and we’ll never not miss them. The day we all (hopefully) get reunited in heaven will be the craziest one that place has ever seen! Till then, I hope you’re doing alright. I miss you!”

35. “Every year today feels like the end of the world. You know that [NAME] would yell at us for crying, though. For them, let’s get it together and head out for a night on the town!”

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.

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