One of the hardest things to do is to find the right words to say when someone you care about loses a loved one. Death is a subject that many people find profoundly uncomfortable.
But part of living in the world community means making the effort to reach out and offer comfort to people in times of grief and sorrow, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Step 1: Consider your Relationship and Other Circumstances
- Step 2: Pick a Medium to Express your Condolences
- Step 3: Get Inspiration from some Condolence Message Ideas
- Step 4: Send or Express your Message
- Step 5: Follow Up and Continue to Show Support
You’re not the only one who has a tough time communicating when someone dies — many people struggle to find the right words to say.
There are a lot of great resources you can take advantage of, such as helpful guides on how to offer condolences and what to write on a sympathy note for flowers. But before you do that, here’s how to express sympathy for someone’s loss.
The best way to share your condolences with a person depends on a lot of factors. First, what was your relationship like with both the deceased and the person or people grieving him or her? Let’s say your childhood best friend’s dad dies and he was like a second father to you.
The words you choose and the method in which you convey your condolences will be personal and intimate. On the other hand, let’s say a coworker’s father (whom you never met) passes away. Your sympathy message will likely be more formal and distant.
Other factors will likely affect the way you express your message. Imagine that your friend’s spouse dies in a sudden accident. Your reaction is likely to be fueled by shock.
However, if your friend’s spouse passed away after a lengthy illness, you may feel more centered because you’ve had time to prepare for his or her death.
The way you express your condolences to someone will depend a lot on the kind of relationship you have with him or her. Casual friends and acquaintances often reach out in person at a funeral or wake if it’s being held in a timely fashion. Closer friends can do the same, but they may see the bereaved in person much sooner and should be prepared to say something then.
Let’s say a funeral service is delayed. Casual acquaintances can also choose to reach out by sending a private Facebook message or by commenting on a post they make about the personal situation. Don’t create a new public social media post if you’ve heard about someone’s death but haven’t seen it announced yet.
It may be that people are waiting to inform other family members in person and you may inadvertently give someone quite a shock. The only exception to this is if the family has asked you to make a post announcing their loved one’s passing on their behalf.
Email can be a great medium for reaching out if someone is a work colleague that you’re not especially close with outside the office. Email might also be good for people who you were once close to but now are only in touch with infrequently — like college roommates or childhood friends.
Condolence cards are always good to send out, no matter how close you are to the bereaved. Many have specific and elegant notes inside and you don’t have to worry about coming up with something personal to say. The card does the talking for you. However, closer friends may take the time to send a handwritten letter and share stories about the deceased. Cards and letters are worth saving, but an in-depth letter about the great characteristics of someone who has passed is a true treasure.
A text message is a great way to reach out to a friend who’s grieving because you don’t have to worry about interrupting someone who’s in the midst of grief.
Send a quick message to let your loved one know that you’re thinking of him or her and that you’re ready to talk whenever needed. This puts less pressure on you to have to come up with the perfect thing to say and less pressure on your friend as well.
Create a free, interactive Cake end-of-life planning profile.
Share your health, legal, funeral, and legacy decisions with your loved ones—just in case.
Now that you have some idea of how you can reach out to someone who is grieving, take a little time to figure out what to say. There’s no shame in sourcing some inspiration online if you’re worried about expressing yourself. Here are some sample messages to get you started:
“I’ll always remember when we took your dad out for sushi and he couldn’t figure out the chopsticks, and then you pulled a fork out of your purse.”
This anecdote isn’t one that a lot of people have experienced. But it may help you think of a memory that was so funny and so evocative that you just can’t help but share. It’s one of those weirdly specific memories that will have people smiling through their tears.
“I could tell how much you loved your mom because of the way you always spoke about her. I have no doubt that she felt the same way about you.”
This is a great example of how you can make a sentiment feel more personal even if you’ve never personally met the deceased.
“One year at the company holiday party, I got a chance to talk to your husband. He couldn’t stop talking about how much he admired you.”
This is a great example of how even a small interaction can have great emotional meaning for someone who is grieving.
“Please know that you and your family are always in my thoughts and in my heart.”
This message might not be the most original sentiment but it avoids sounding too trite. It also eschews any religious sentiment, which is handy if you aren’t sure what, if any, faith the deceased and their family belongs to.
“Your father was an extraordinary man who was always so kind to others. He still lives on through his acts of kindness.”
When you toss a stone into the water, long after it has sunk to the bottom, the ripples it made spread out along the surface of the water. Some people have this kind of impact on the world, and reminding a loved one of the positive effects the deceased had in his or her community is an act of kindness of its own.
If you need more inspiration, check out our full list of sympathy messages.
The above messages can be sent in whatever way you feel most comfortable conveying it, whether that’s in person, via email, social media, or text message.
They also make a lovely sentiment at the end of a condolence card.
The truth is, words aren’t always enough. Sometimes people require actions to really understand the depth of people’s feelings. Acts of service are a great way to communicate how much you care about them. Some tangible ways of helping include:
- Organize a meal train so that the bereaved individual doesn’t have to worry about grocery shopping, menu-planning, or preparing food.
- Send flowers to a funeral or memorial service held in honor of the deceased.
- Check-in regularly, especially after a month or more has passed since the funeral. The bereaved might emerge from the cocoon of grief that has isolated them and find that there’s no one around. Make sure to let your mourner know you’re there — no matter how much time has elapsed.
- Collect mementos, like funeral programs, newspaper obituaries, printed copies of the eulogies people delivered, etc. A grieving person might forget to hold onto these things.
- Take up a collection around the office for a practical present like a gift card to the local grocery store, accompanied by a sympathy card signed by everyone in the office.
- Donate unused vacation time. Someone might have to take extended time off work to tend to a dying parent or make funeral arrangements for a spouse or child. This will enable your coworker to take the time they need to get back on his or her feet without worrying about not drawing a paycheck.
- Offer to spend the night if someone has lost a spouse and is having a difficult time alone.
What to Say When You Don’t Know What to Say
Expressing sympathy when someone you know experiences a death shouldn’t feel so scary — but it often does, anyway. It’s possible that’s because death is still such a taboo subject in many cultures.
Your best bet is to be brave and speak from the heart — and try to put yourself in your friend or loved one’s shoes as much as you possibly can.