It’s hard to know just what to say when someone dies. You may even rely on using clichés to express your sympathy to someone who has experienced a great loss.
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It’s challenging to come up with a new way to offer condolences but it’s important to try. Moments of true human connection are an invaluable lifeline to throw to someone mired in grief. Here are some tips to help you find the right words.
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Quick Tips for Saying the Right Thing
The truth is, there’s no magical combination of words to make someone’s grief go away. But you can provide some measure of comfort. The more heartfelt your message, the more easily it will be received. Here are some guidelines:
- Be personal. Even if you didn’t personally know the deceased, you can still draw on your knowledge of him or her. For instance, if you know how much your coworker looked up to her father, you can include that in your sentiments. Let’s say your coworker once shared a specific story about why she admired her father, be sure to reference it.
- Avoid religion unless you know it’s welcome. It’s never appropriate to push your religious beliefs on someone else. It’s especially inappropriate when someone is in mourning. Even if you find comfort thinking the deceased is in a better place, refrain from sharing that thought if you’re unsure whether the sentiment is shared.
- Be a good listener. You might get too hung up on what you’re planning to say. It’s best to focus not on what you want to say, but on what the other person needs to hear. Really listen to what the other person says and respond to it.
- Don’t be inappropriately positive. It’s hard to see people who are experiencing raw grief. You might want them to feel better just to make yourself feel less uncomfortable. Resist the urge to tell a grieving person to be strong. Don’t suggest their loved one is better off because suffering has ended. Avoid saying that everything happens for a reason. These words can come off as flip and can inadvertently cause more pain.
COVID-19 Tip: Someone attending a virtual funeral over Zoom using a service like GatheringUs can still use your thoughtful words and support. Just because the funeral isn't in person doesn't mean the event is any less difficult for your loved one.
What to Say to Someone Who’s Going to a Funeral
Do you know someone who needs to attend a funeral? If so, you can bring your friend some comfort. Be sure to speak from the heart and keep your friend’s character in mind.
For example, let’s say you’re expressing condolences to an acquaintance or a person who is generally private — don’t be overly effusive. Keep your sentiments sincere and brief. Feel free to be more emotionally expressive if you’re speaking with a close friend or with people who wear their hearts on their sleeves. Tailor your message to your audience.
1. “I’ll be up late tonight, and I’m leaving my phone on. If you need someone to talk with after the funeral, I’m here for you.”
You often feel somewhat numb when you lose a loved one. It can take several days for a person’s death to hit home and begin to feel real. The funeral may unlock the real depths of your grief and bring it to the surface.
Let your friend know that you’re there as support if you need to connect and process these feelings after the service. You don’t have to wait for your friend to reach out, either. Send a text or give your friend a call a few hours after the service to reaffirm that you’re there.
2. “I brought this casserole by so you don’t have to worry about what to eat later. If you’re not up for eating it tonight, it also freezes well.”
A cliché phrase people often say is, “Tell me if there’s anything you need.” Unfortunately, it’s not always entirely sincere. It’s a thing people say because they don’t know what else to say. It also puts the burden on the grieving person to ask for help.
Bringing dinner over or performing a similar concrete act of service demonstrates your sincerity. Doing this before the funeral communicates that you understand what an emotional day it will be.
3. “I also lost my mother last year. I won’t say I know how you’re feeling, because grief is a unique experience for everyone. But I want you to know that you’re not alone, and I’m sorry you’re hurting like this.”
Sometimes in an effort to connect with people in mourning, we talk too much about our own experience.
This sentiment shows your personal connection to the situation but keeps the focus on the person who is grieving. Saying “I know how you feel,” would be a cliché. Saying you have been through something similar but acknowledging the individuality of pain keeps these words from being trite.
4. “I don’t want you to feel like you need to worry about work while you’re gone. Let’s talk about what I can do to make your workload lighter.”
It can be tricky to reach out to coworkers with condolences. This is especially true if you don’t socialize much outside of work.
Instead, show your support by taking over some of your coworkers’ tasks temporarily. Offer to make yourself available to clients while he or she is out of the office. If you’re working on a project together, offer to do some of the heavy lifting. This is another great example of showing someone you’re there and not just paying lip service.
5. “I remember meeting your dad at our college graduation ceremony. He was so proud of you. I hope you know that he thought the world of you.”
Even if you didn’t know the deceased well, you can draw on the brief encounters you did have with him or her.
This is an example of how you can personalize your sympathy messages to someone in mourning without knowing the deceased well.
6. “I know how much you loved baking with your grandmother. I remember when you brought in those Christmas cookies you made together. I think you had such a special connection with her.”
This is another example of a way you can say something personal about a person you never met.
Sharing moments like this can show how engaged you are in someone’s life. This can help form an impactful human connection.
7. “I’m sorry I never got to meet your sister. Anytime you want to talk about her, I’d love to hear about your relationship.”
Grieving people often feel like they can’t talk about happier times with a deceased loved one.
Everyone only expects them to dwell on how their loved one died and how sad they are. Let your friend or acquaintance know they can come to you when they’re ready for positive reflections, too.
8. “I know you’re worried about how much time you’ve been out of the office with your husband’s illness. We don’t want you to feel rushed to come back. Everyone from the office has donated some of our unused vacation time to you. We hope this relieves some pressure.”
Does your coworker have an ailing spouse or parent? If so, she may have missed a lot of work. She might feel that she’s used up any goodwill. Ease her mind by organizing all your coworkers to donate paid time off (PTO).
You may not be able to pull together something on a major scale, so get all your coworkers to sign a sympathy card. Even a small gesture can mean a lot.
9. “I know it may be hard for you to come home to an empty house after the funeral. I’m happy to come camp out on your couch tonight if you don’t want to be alone. That’s not just for tonight. It’s a standing offer.”
If you have a friend or a neighbor who has lost a spouse, it can be very difficult for your friend to be home alone. She may have close friends and family who stick close by for a few weeks, but eventually, everyone returns to their own lives. Offer again a few weeks or months later, too.
10. “It’s okay to feel angry, frustrated, and afraid. Whatever you’re feeling right now, it is valid.”
Grief doesn’t just manifest in sadness and tears. People who survive a loved one’s death can have complex feelings.
They may feel guilty if they survived an accident that killed someone they loved. They may feel anger if a loved one was engaging in risky behavior when he died. They may feel confused, as though the world no longer makes sense.
Worst of all, they may feel like they have to hide these feelings because they are not the “correct” way to mourn. Letting people know it’s okay to feel emotions that are messy and raw is a kindness.
11. “I know Sarah meant the world to you. I’m so sorry for the hurt you’re feeling.”
You might avoid saying the deceased’s name around his or her loved ones. You may feel that you can tiptoe around the loss by not invoking the deceased’s name.
But that can feel isolating for people. Something as simple as saying the name of the deceased is a powerful gesture.
12. “May I give you a hug?”
Sometimes words aren’t enough. On those occasions, an offer of physical comfort may be the best gesture you can make.
Finding the Right Words to Say
You may want to say the perfect words to someone who loses a loved one. In truth, there are no perfect words. However, if you keep it personal and speak from the heart, you can provide a measure of solace.
If you want to help your loved one through the process of losing someone, consider sharing our post-loss checklist.