When death shakes a family's foundation, offering words of condolences when their family member is dying is one of the many ways of being there for them. Saying words of love and encouragement can mean the world to a person who is suffering the loss of their loved one. Even if it feels challenging, know that you don't need to say anything profound or offer expert advice.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Offer Your Words in Person or on the Phone
- What to Say Online or Through a Text Message
- Special Words of Condolence for a Family Dealing with Cancer
Sharing your sincere sentiments can go a long way in helping others cope with their grief. Nothing takes away their immediate pain and suffering, but they can find some measure of comfort in your expressed condolences.
If you have a friend who is dealing with the impending loss of a cherished loved one, here are some words to share in person or on the phone. Sharing in their grief helps create a sense of community and will help your friend and their family feel less isolated.
Post-loss tip: If you are the executor for a deceased loved one, the emotional and technical aspects of 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.
How to Offer Your Words in Person or on the Phone
Offering condolences in person or on the telephone can be difficult to do when you don’t know what to say. Our society finds it difficult to talk about death, and no one teaches us how to react to it.
Generally, we may draw blanks figuring out what to say when someone is dying. And sometimes, we ignore the situation and hope for a good outcome.
Being brave and supporting a friend or loved one can help. Below are some guidelines and examples to help you when someone you know has died.
How to decide what to say
Deciding what to say can sometimes be the hardest thing to do. Should you do it in person? By phone? Or by text? Some people don’t know what to say, and thus say nothing at all. They create this awkward situation that leaves them feeling shame and guilt over not having offered their condolences.
The more time that passes, the harder it is to address the family’s loss and grieving. Not saying anything at all is one of the worst things you can do when someone you know is suffering the death of their loved one.
What to consider
Consider the relationship and closeness between you and the deceased.
Was this someone whom you only saw on occasion, or was it someone who played a major role in your life? Are you closer to certain family members than to the deceased? Are you expressing your condolences out of respect for the family’s loss? Or do you share in their pain and suffering? You should consider all these things when deciding what to say and how to say it.
Some examples of what to say
The simplest form of expressing condolences to someone grieving the loss of a loved one is to say, “sorry for your loss.” You may offer other gestures of condolences such as a hug, a pat on the back, or a handshake.
Another common thing to say is, “May God be with you during your time of grief.” Be mindful when offering condolences centered on religion or spirituality. Not everyone has the same belief system, and some may not be open about their religion, faith, and spirituality. Other ways of expressing condolences vary among the different cultures in our society.
What to Say Online or Through a Text Message
In Western societies, it is expected that most people are uncomfortable with death and do not know how to express condolences when the time comes. In some cases, texting or sending a message through social media can be an acceptable alternative to offering your condolences without having to struggle with speaking to someone directly. If the family set up a virtual funeral or online memorial page, you may be able to offer condolences on those platforms as well.
Sending a message allows you to draft a well-thought-out message before sending it to the recipient. You are able to create a draft and edit it until the message you are trying to convey is properly written before hitting send.
Guidelines for texting a condolence message
- Consider if texting is an appropriate form of communication between you and the recipient. If your normal method of communication is via text messaging, then texting your condolences is appropriate. Follow up with a phone call at a later time, send a sympathy card, or attend the funeral if there is one.
- Consider the customs of the family who is grieving. Is the family a traditional one requiring the expression of condolences in person? Will it offend them to receive a text message offering your support? Is the family a modern one who communicates through texting and social media outlets?
- Generally, sending a text is an acceptable means of communicating your condolences. Use discretion and consider whether a text message is too informal in each particular circumstance.
Some examples of what to say
The following examples are short and simple ways of expressing your condolences through text messaging. Alter the message to personalize it and to fit your needs.
- “Sending you love during this difficult time. I am sorry for your loss.”
- “Words alone cannot describe the sorrow that I feel. I am saddened by your loss.”
- “Your father meant the world to me. I am filled with pain and grief over his loss.”
- “I am keeping you and your family in my thoughts and prayers. Please let me know how I can help during this difficult time.”
- “Please know that our deepest sympathies go out to you and your family. We mourn your mother’s loss with you.”
Special Words of Condolence for a Family Dealing with Cancer
When someone you know is dealing with cancer, special words of condolence apply. You may offer words of solace, comfort, and consolation while offering encouragement as they go through their treatment. Think about lending support to the family and help with whatever they may need.
As the end of life draws near, it may become harder to find the right words to say. However, it's quite normal for people to distance themselves when death is inevitable. For some, they may be afraid of witnessing the decline of their loved one who has cancer. Others may fear their own mortality as they consider the disease.
Knowing what to say
It's important to know what to say in this circumstance. At this point, the need is two-fold. The needs of both the family and their loved one should be addressed when offering condolences.
The family is dealing with the care of their loved one, the management of their medical treatment, and having to accept that death may be near. Their loved one is dealing with their disease and end-of-life issues.
What to consider
If you are close to the family member with cancer, consider how they feel. Show interest and concern when discussing their needs. Ask questions and listen to their responses. Are they aware of the progression of the disease? Have they considered their final wishes? Is there anything they would like for you to do for them?
Speak to them and their family with love and kindness. Consider that they may also have the same fears about the disease and death. Be honest and upfront about what to expect, how you will handle things as they come up, and be respectful of what their loved one may wish for their last days.
Some examples of what to say
It isn’t easy to have the above conversations with someone you love who is facing a terminal illness. The conversations may be awkward and difficult to begin.
A good starting point is to begin this dialogue by expressing your fears and concerns. It can also be hard to share these feelings with their family members as well. Consider talking to them about how you feel about cancer and open up the conversation for them to respond in kind. Tell your loved one’s family and them about what they mean to you and how your life will change without them.
When in the last few days, it may be easier to shift the focus from their needs to the family’s. You don’t need to make every conversation about their family member or their illness. You don’t need to make every conversation about dying. You can find other things to talk about to fill his final days with joy, love, and tenderness.
Here are some examples of what to say to get the conversation started:
- “Tell me what’s on your mind today. What do you want to talk about?”
- “I don’t know what to say, but I do know that I love you. Please let me know how I can help.”
- “I wish you didn’t have to go through this. How can I make things easier for you?”
- “How are you doing? Do you need anything? What can I get for you?”
- To the loved one that is sick: “If you are feeling up to it, can I take you outside for a breath of fresh air?”
- “Pull up a chair, let’s talk!” (Adding humor to the conversation can sometimes ease the tension.)
Giving Words of Love to a Family is a Form of Support
Sharing in an intimate conversation with the family when their family member is dying does not have to be a series of a few awkward words of condolence. Reach out and think about the best way for you to support them, whether it's making a meal, putting together a sympathy care package, or just being a shoulder to cry on. Use this time to offer your support with whatever is needed.
It’s never easy preparing to say goodbye to a loved one. The opportunity to say your final goodbyes is a special and important part of your relationship. Consider using this time to express the love you have for them. Tell them and their family what they mean to you now and have meant throughout your life. Take a stroll down memory lane and share in all of life’s moments — the good and the bad. These conversations allow the opportunity to address unfinished business and right some wrongs.
Consider perhaps sharing some books on grief to help guide the conversation. Help the family honor their loved one’s legacy while they are alive. Reassuring the entire family that you love and support them is a great way to keep the communication lines open.