There’s no way to measure grief. There isn’t a timeline you can compare yourself to other people who have experienced loss. That being said, there’s no pain quite as singular as the pain of losing a parent.
Your parents are the first people in your life. They’re there for you from the moment you’re born. It’s hard to imagine life without them. No matter how old you are, the loss of a parent can make you feel like a child again.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Offer Condolences to Someone Who Lost a Mom or Dad
- Examples of What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Parent
- Examples of What to Say to Someone Who Suddenly Lost a Parent
- Examples of What to Say to Someone on Their Parent’s Death Anniversary
- Examples of What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Parent a Long Time Ago
- Examples of What to Say to a Loved One Who Lost a Parent on Your Loved One’s Birthday or a Holiday
If you haven’t had the misfortune of losing a parent, you may find yourself at a loss for words when someone you know loses their mother or father. You may not even know how to offer condolences for a loss so profound.
Read on for some guidelines on ways you can best express sympathy for a friend who is grieving.
(For more information on end-of-life planning after the death of a loved one, let our post-loss checklist guide you through the process.)
Every person handles grief and loss in their own way. You can make a guess how they will respond to condolences based on their typical personality types, but grief can make people act in opposition to how you usually know them to be.
A stoic person may be uncharacteristically loquacious when sharing memories of their mother. Your most bubbly, extroverted friend may become silent and withdrawn after their father dies. Pay attention to how they react, and be sure to adjust your position accordingly.
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Send a text
While members of older generations may complain about cell phones, they can’t deny the convenience of a direct link to family, friends, and other loved ones. But still, many of us hesitate to pick up the phone and call someone who has just lost a parent.
We worry that they are busy planning the funeral or taking a nap or grieving, and we don’t want to intrude. Sending a text enables you to communicate in real-time with your friend or acquaintance without fretting about interrupting something important.
If they text back, you can always ask if they’d rather chat by phone or continue texting. This gives them power and control over the interchange.
Everyone knows that the traditional way of conveying condolences on the loss of a parent or other loved one is to send flowers to a funeral. Beautiful, fresh flowers can act as a visual representation of love for the deceased and sympathy for the family.
However, be sure to pay attention to obituaries or funeral home announcements. Nowadays, some people prefer you to donate on their behalf in lieu of flowers.
Send a condolence card
Taking time to send a handwritten condolence card is a thoughtful and personal gesture that is usually appreciated by the family of the deceased. You can keep it short and simple on a sympathy note for flowers.
However, if the family has asked for no flowers, you can send a separate card with more room to express your sympathies.
Send an email
In today’s world, it’s not unusual to count someone as a close friend, even if you haven’t met them in person. And, even if you know someone’s most personal secrets, it’s possible to have no idea what their mailing address is.
In that case, you can feel free to forego the handwritten condolence card on the passing of their parent and send an email with your sympathies instead.
This is also an appropriate venue to send condolences to a client or work colleague if you want to be slightly more personal than scrawling your name on a group sympathy card from everyone in the office.
Post on social media
Expressing condolences through social media can be a tricky proposition. If you find out that someone you know lost their parent, but you haven’t seen them posting about it publicly, you should avoid making a public message about it.
Instead, wait until they’ve made a post and leave a comment there. This will also allow your loved one to turn off notifications for a single post if the reminders are too painful, rather than hunting down other individual posts.
You can also send private condolences via social media, like through a private Facebook message or Twitter or Instagram direct messages.
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Now that you know how you can reach out to people about the loss of their parent, you can start thinking about the specific words that you want to say. If you struggle with verbal or written communication, take some time in advance to prepare something to say.
What to say in person
It can be nerve-wracking to think about expressing condolences to someone face to face. But no matter how uncomfortable you feel with it, it could be worse. You could be the grieving person who has to hold variations of their end of the conversation several times a day for the foreseeable future.
If you keep that in mind, it might help you feel less self-conscious. Here are some examples that may also give you some ideas on where to start.
- “I know you feel raw right now. Know that whenever you need to talk about your mom, whether it’s in six weeks or six months or six years, I’m here.”
- “Your dad was such an amazing guy. If I ever have kids, I hope to be the kind of father he seemed to be for you.”
- “Do you remember how your mom always set up a sundae bar at your birthday sleepovers? When you’re ready, let’s go get sundaes and toast to her.”
- “I never met your father, but from the way you spoke of him, he sounded like the best dad. I hope when you’re ready, you’ll continue sharing stories about him.”
What to say on social media
Remember that only immediate family or people they’ve designated should make a public post about the passing of their parent. Once they’ve made a post, feel free to leave your condolences as a comment to that post.
- “There are no words that can begin to capture the magnitude of your loss. I’m so sorry that you and your family are going through this.”
- “Every time I ran into your father, he couldn’t wait to tell me about your latest accomplishments. I hope you know how proud he was to be your dad.”
- “Your mother was one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known, and her compassion continues to shine on through you.”
- “I’ll miss running into your stepdad at the coffee shop every morning. Seeing him was always a highlight of my day.”
What to say in an email
An email offers up a slightly more private way of expressing your condolences electronically. They are also a great avenue to reach out to a work colleague or more casual acquaintance.
- “I’m so sorry to hear about the passing of your mother. If there’s anything I can do to help you here at the office, don’t hesitate to let me know.”
- “I just wanted to reach out and let you know that I am keeping you and your family in my thoughts during this difficult time.”
- “I lost my dad a few years ago. While I don’t know exactly how you feel, I remember my own grief. I’m here to listen with no judgment.”
- “We started a pool in the office and have donated some of our vacation hours so you can take time off if you need to without worrying about money.”
What to say via text message
Text messages are the perfect venue to reach out in a very low-pressure way. You can have time to choose your words thoughtfully and carefully in a way in-person interactions don’t allow, and you’re giving your friend space to reply only when they feel up to it.
- “If you need to talk, please call me anytime. I’m always up late and happy to provide a listening ear.”
- “I know you have a lot on your plate right now. If you need help making any plans or need moral support, I’ll be there in a heartbeat.”
- “If you need a break from being polite to people, come on over. I have wine and a pile of thrift store plates. Let’s drink and break stuff and cry.”
- “I’d love to bring you a casserole or send you some take-out on my dime. What are you in the mood for, and when would you like it?”
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What to say in a card
Cards are a good option for sending condolences to someone. If you’re good with words, you can choose a blank card and write a lengthy message. If words aren’t your forte, pick out a card with a message inside that captures what you want to say and add a brief note of your own.
They also offer a tangible keepsake for the kind of person who likes to save cards and other mementos from critical moments in their lives.
- “Please know that we are holding your family in our hearts right now.”
- “I’ll never forget the kindness your mother showed to me when I needed it. She taught me what being a mother is all about.”
- “Your dad was so funny. I really miss watching the lengths he would go to when he wanted to entertain people. I miss him so much.”
- “When I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, your stepmom took time to talk with me and find out my interests. I owe so much to her.”
Examples of What to Say to Someone Who Suddenly Lost a Parent
Losing a parent can be devastating, even as an adult. The person who has known you your whole life, given you advice, and tended to your skinned knees is gone. Now, you’re faced with the prospect of burying them and carrying out their final wishes when you’re at your most vulnerable.
Receiving words of love and support can help people who are reeling in the aftermath of the death of a parent. Here are some examples of thoughtful things you can say:
- “This must be an incredibly challenging time for you right now. I want you to know that I’m here for whatever you may need, whether that’s starting a meal train or just providing a shoulder for you to cry on.”
- “I realize your mom had been ill for quite some time, but I know there’s no way to really prepare for this kind of loss. Anytime you need to talk, day or night, I’ll be here for you.”
- “If you’re overwhelmed with funeral planning, I’d be happy to pitch in and support you. I’m tech-savvy and have writing experience, so I can help with things like making programs or creating slideshows. Even if you just need someone to accompany you to the funeral home, I’ve got your back.”
- “You have so much on your plate right now. If you’d like, I could take the kids off your hands for the weekend. The girls always love having sleepovers with them, and that way you can take a little time for yourself to breathe and center yourself.”
- “Your dad was such an amazing guy. My father wasn't around when I was growing up, and your dad really took me under his wing. He taught me how to shave, and properly tie a tie. He was a great man who will be greatly missed.”
- “You’ve been going full throttle here for the last several days. Now that the funeral is over, please get some rest and take care of yourself. Your mom would want to make sure that you haven’t run yourself ragged.”
- “If you’re up for it, I thought maybe I’d drop by later with takeout from your favorite restaurant. I could leave it for you, or sit and eat with you if you need a little company. You don’t even have to talk if you’re not feeling up to it. Whatever you need.”
Examples of What to Say to Someone on Their Parent’s Death Anniversary
No matter how much time passes, the death of a parent doesn’t get any easier. The pain may lessen in frequency and intensity, but it’s still simmering beneath the surface. On the anniversary of a death, it’s not unusual for those more intense feelings of grief to rise up to the surface.
Reaching out to a loved one on the anniversary of their parent’s death reminds them that they still have people around who care deeply for them. Here are some examples of what to say to somebody on their parent’s death anniversary:
- “I know this has been the most challenging year of your life. Your mom would be so proud of the grace and resilience you’ve shown in the face of tragedy.”
- “I remember after my dad passed away, the first anniversary of his death really hit me hard. I think that’s when it finally felt real to me. I know the anniversary of your dad’s death is coming up soon, and I wanted to let you know that I understand how difficult this first anniversary can be. I’m here for you.”
- “I know you usually go and visit your parents at the cemetery on the anniversary of their death each year. I’ll understand if you’d rather go alone, but if you want some company I’d be happy to go along and support you.”
- “I thought it might be nice to set up a memorial fundraiser in honor of your dad on the anniversary of his death. I know he liked running, so maybe we could set up a charity 5K and donate the proceeds to the American Cancer Society. He really liked to give back to others, so I can’t think of a more fitting tribute. Would you be interested in having me organize something like this?”
- “I remember your mom used to love having little beach getaways whenever she had the chance. Since the anniversary of her death is coming up, I was thinking maybe we could go on a little road trip to the coast together. We can drink daiquiris in her honor.”
- “I know that this time of year is especially painful for you. Please know that I’m here to support you in any way I can.”
- “I can’t believe it’s been five years since your mom passed away. She was so loved, and she is still sorely missed.”
- “I just wanted to let you know that I went to visit your dad’s grave at the cemetery last week. I know you’re usually there on the anniversary of his passing, so you may see the flowers I left there.”
Examples of What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Parent a Long Time Ago
People often keep their sentiments to more surface-level condolences in the immediate aftermath of a person’s death. But after enough time has passed, we begin to relax and delve deeper into our memories. We may become more comfortable sharing specific, personal stories. Here are some examples of thoughtful words you can share with someone whose parent passed away long ago:
- “You’ve grown up into such an accomplished young man. Your dad would have been so proud of everything you’ve accomplished. He always knew you were destined for great things. Even when you were a small boy, he would tell us that you’d change the world someday.”
- “I didn’t have the best home life growing up, but your mom always made me feel so welcome when I came over to hang out. She was a wonderful person who changed my life for the better.”
- “I remember when we were teenagers and we got drunk and stranded at a party. I was freaking out, but when your dad came to pick us up he didn’t lecture us. He told us we could always call him if we were in trouble. That attitude still inspires my parenting today.”
- “Every time you bake these chocolate chip cookies, I remember how your mom used to serve them to us when they were still warm and gooey. They taste like happiness.”
- “I know it’s been almost twenty years since you lost your dad. But I see so much of him in you, it feels like a part of him is still here with us.”
- “Your mom had the best sense of style. It was amazing when she would let us try on her clothes as teenagers. I felt so fancy and grown-up. She was really a fashion icon.”
- “I was going through some scrapbooks my parents had, and I found this article about the time your dad ran for mayor and won. I thought you might enjoy seeing what they wrote about him”
Examples of What to Say to a Loved One Who Lost a Parent on Your Loved One’s Birthday or a Holiday
Birthdays and holidays are a perfect time for families to gather together and celebrate an auspicious occasion. But when your loved ones are together, it’s impossible not to notice the gaps left behind by people who are no longer with us. As a result, these get-togethers can feel bittersweet.
It may be tempting to ignore the elephant in the room. But expressing kind words about people who have passed helps include them in their celebration.
- “Do you remember the elaborate Easter scavenger hunts your step dad used to plan for us? He always went so over-the-top, and it was a total blast. I remember the year he left giant floury bunny footprints throughout the house. I’ve never seen your mom get so mad!”
- “This year I’m grateful that so many of us are able to be together on Thanksgiving. But it’s impossible to forget that some people are only here with us in spirit, and not in person. I’d like to raise a glass in honor of Aunt Betsy. Sarah, your mom always hosted the most beautiful dinners, and you’re clearly following in her footsteps. Thank you for inviting us all here.”
- “Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, so I thought your dad was the coolest person in the world. Your house always had the best decorations and the best candy, and I loved the themed family costumes you always had. Your dad was such a kid at heart, and he really let that show every October.”
- “I still remember the year your mom tried eggnog for the first time, and somehow didn’t realize it had alcohol in it. She was usually so prim and proper, but she really let her hair down that night! I don’t know if you know this, but I always whipped up a separate booze-free batch just for her every year after that.”
- “I know how strange it is to have to celebrate your birthday when the person who gave birth to you is no longer with us. I’m sure you’re not in the mood for a big party, but maybe I could take you out for a quiet dinner if you’re up for it.”
- “I remember when we were kids, and we went downtown to see the fireworks. It was so loud and I was so scared. Your mom scooped me right up and showed me how to put my hands over my ears. I felt so safe with her. She was an amazing person.”
- “This past year has been so hard for you after your parents passed away. Let’s raise a glass and toast to a better future. Happy New Year.”
Being There When Someone Loses a Parent
Losing a parent is never easy, and knowing how to talk to someone about that painful and personal experience can be a major challenge. Reaching out with a heartfelt message and maybe even a sympathy gift are great ways to show your support as someone grieves. At the end of the day, no one will remember if you got the words exactly right: they’ll care about your effort and your good intentions most.