There are more than 170,000 words in the English language, but in the wake of someone’s death, no combination of words seem like they’re enough.
You may know you want to express condolences to a deceased person’s relatives, but it’s very easy to get stuck on what to say because words can seem so inadequate. That’s why we tend to send flowers to a funeral with a polite but generic card.
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We’ll explore some of the best ways to say what a grieving person needs to hear, specifically when they’ve recently lost someone to cancer.
Why is it so hard to come up with the right words to express sympathy after death? It may be rooted in our culture. The Western world has some specific taboos about discussing death and our belief systems have a significant basis in our own fear of death. This concept has been further explored by social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski in their terror-management theory.
Every person is different and each person’s grieving process is equally individualized. Some people will want to talk about his or her recently deceased loved one and remember the positive memories.
Others may be fine talking about practical aspects like funeral planning and writing a eulogy — but won’t want to discuss the specifics of their loved one’s illness and death. Others may find peace when they discuss their loved one’s last days and the peace they may or may not have found along the way.
You may think you know what kind of conversation a friend or acquaintance will want to have based on their personalities and previous interactions with them, but that can change even after a long illness from cancer.
The most energetic person you know may be numb and still, while your most laid-back friend may swing wildly between sorrow and anger. Be attuned and prepare to adjust your approach. You never want to cause more pain to someone who is already battling grief.
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Here are some jumping-off points to help get you started knowing what to say when someone dies of cancer.
“I’m sorry for everything that you’ve been through, and that you’re still going through.”
Saying “I’m sorry for your loss” can sometimes sound clinical and impersonal. When someone dies from cancer, it is often after a long illness.
Your friend or acquaintance has probably been suffering for a while. Acknowledge that your friend or loved one’s grieving has been ongoing and that it has now turned into a different kind of grief.
“Do you want to talk about him or her?”
Sometimes it helps people to reminisce about happier times with their loved ones. Sometimes they want to rail about the injustice of losing someone.
Open the door to that conversation by making sure your friend is in a place where he or she actually wants to discuss the deceased.
“Did I ever tell you about what he/she did for me?”
Once you’ve established that your friend is okay discussing his or her loved one, tell him or her a story.
Talk about how your friend’s mother, a teacher, wrote you an amazing letter of recommendation for college. Let your friend know that his or her brother stepped in when you needed help moving into an apartment.
Sometimes learning something new about a loved one helps the deceased’s memory live on in some small way. You can even offer to set up an online memorial page so that others can contribute their own stories and your friend can look back on the impact their loved one had on others.
“Can I bring some books over that have helped me in the past?”
There have been many helpful books written about grief and coping with loss. Let’s say you’ve read through some in the past when you went through your own grief journey. It’s great to recommend them to a friend as long as you don’t make your
You can also share resources. Let’s say your friend has young children who are dealing with losing a beloved parent or grandparent. Send your friend a list of the best children’s books about death.
“Would you like me to stay over tonight?”
Sometimes nights can be lonely and difficult when someone has lost a spouse. Let your friend know you’re available to be there around the clock.
“What can I do around the house to help you out?”
Sometimes the tedium of household chores can be a lot to deal with when you’re stuck in a swirling vortex of grief.
Simple chores, like washing the dishes or folding the laundry, can relieve a little bit of your friend’s burden.
“A few friends and I want to make you some meals. What would you like?”
People sometimes forget to eat in the wake of the death of a loved one. Eating can feel like a major challenge when your friend is just trying to make it through the day.
Let your friend know that you and some other friends want to put together a meal train to make sure he or she stays fed without effort. If you live far away, you can consider sending them a gift card for their favorite restaurant or a meal delivery service instead.
“I want to be here for you, but tell me when you need some space.”
People who are grieving often don’t want to feel like they’re burdening anyone with their needs. There are times when they’ll tell you that you don’t have to stick around, but you’ll sense that they’re only saying it out of politeness. Be straightforward about it.
Tell your friend that spending time with her is never a hardship — and that she shouldn’t worry about hurting your feelings. She has a free pass to say “I want to be alone now,” and you’ll always listen, no questions asked.
But she also needs to know that you never think of time spent with her as an obligation on your end.
“Do you need a hug?”
Friends who lose a spouse can be nearly touch-starved. They may not have been able to touch or hug their loved
A hug can help, but asking first is always advisable before making physical contact with someone.
You may also consider giving your friend something cozy, like this throw blanket, for some extra comfort as they grieve.
“Would you like me to take the kids for a few hours or overnight?”
Life can get overwhelming fast if your friend loses a spouse or partner and he or she has young children. Single parenting is hard enough, and being a recently-widowed single parent who is grieving can seem impossible.
Widowers can probably draw great strength from their children, but every parent could use a break sometimes, even if it’s just to go to the grocery store without kids who try to sneak candy and Pop-Tarts into the cart.
“I want you to know that I’m going to keep being here for you.”
It may feel like acquaintances swarm into the life of the deceased person’s family for the funeral or memorial service and then disappear. Even closer acquaintances and friends may start off strong with phone calls and casseroles and slowly recede.
This is often when the grief gets strongest for some mourners. Let your friend know that you’re showing up now, and you’re going to keep showing up. It’s hugely important to follow through on that promise.
The best thing you can say is often nothing at all. Grief is lonely, but sometimes people who are grieving don’t have the emotional energy to invest in carrying on their end of a conversation.
Don’t make them feel obligated to entertain you. Show up, tell them it’s OK if they aren’t up for talking, but you’d love to hang out anyway. Grieving in silence is far less lonely when another person is there with you.
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Soothing Thoughts for Those Left Behind
It would be nice if the right combination of words would instantly serve as a balm to someone who is grieving, but it doesn’t work that way. The only real cure for grief is time, and the length of time it takes will vary for everyone.
In the meantime, remember that actions speak louder than words. Express your sympathy in actionable ways, not just with words.
Keep showing up. Hold your friend’s hand. Listen to your friend or learn how to comfortably sit in silence. Send a thoughtful sympathy gift, bring a meal over, or help with small household chores. Give your friend a brief call to check-in. Words are important, but in the end, sometimes it’s what you do when you’re not speaking that makes all the difference.
If you need more ideas on what to do our say, head over to our full list of things to say when someone dies.
- Wittmann, Marc. “The Taboo of Death: How Culture Overcomes Death Anxiety.” Psychologytoday.com, Psychology Today,26 February 2019, www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/sense-time/201902/the-taboo-death.