Most of us have felt the awkwardness and shallow nature of an unthought-out condolence message. Sometimes ‘sorry for your loss just doesn’t cut it. It feels like there’s a lot more to say, but finding those right words is challenging.
There’s no right or wrong way to share your heartfelt condolences, but some approaches are more helpful than others. It’s wise to have some more thoughtful and compassionate words of condolence thought out and ready to share with a loved one when someone in their life passes away.
In this article, we’ll help you find the right words and what to say when someone passes away. We’ll suggest some nicer, wiser, and more helpful things to say when someone has died.
What to say when someone passes away
Don’t pressure yourself
First and foremost, take some pressure off yourself. Following your friend or loved one’s significant loss, you might feel a lot of stress and pressure to act the right way and say the right thing or at least avoid saying the wrong thing. This is a very sensitive time for the bereaved, and trying to navigating it can be challenging. Of course, what they’re going through is an awful lot more challenging than you’re anxiety about saying something inappropriate, but your experience is valid too.
You want to say something meaningful and important, and you worry that you’ll be a bad friend if you don’t. Understand that your grieving friend doesn’t need to hear exactly the right thing. There’s nothing you can say that will fix or change their situation. What’s most important is that they know you care for and support them.
In the days and weeks afterward…
At and around the time of the person’s death, the bereaved will receive much attention. Close and immediate friends and family members will reach out and offer sympathy and support. This is a strange and sometimes stressful time for the bereaved. Dealing with their loved one’s death is by itself challenging and overwhelming at times. On top of that, they feel compelled to say thank you and reply to all the messages they receive.
This is a good time to offer your condolences but if you’re particularly close to the bereaved, take this opportunity to show them how much you care rather than just telling them. Let them know how you feel about their situation but be there for them when you can. Offer help with tasks and responsibilities when possible. Still, respect your own time and don’t make the bereaved feel awkward about it or indebted to you in some way.
In the months afterward…
In the months that follow the loss, condolence messages are fewer and fewer. People have shared their sympathy and now move on with their own lives. The closest friends and family members continue to check-in and offer support, but there is often a sense that everyone has moved on and bereaved is left to deal with their loss. This is a vulnerable time for the person because it is in this new period of silence and solitude that deeper feelings of loss and even confusion arise.
When it’s been a while since your friend’s loved one passed away, don’t be afraid to mention the deceased’s name. You might worry that you’ll remind your loved ones of their pain, but they don’t need you to remind them. They’re already very much aware.
By offering a memory about the deceased, you help the bereaved by letting them know that their love is truly not forgotten that they live on in ideas and memories.
How to support a grieving friend
Offer a compassionate ear
One of the best and most effective ways to help a grieving friend is to offer them your emotional support. There’s nothing you can do to ‘fix’ or reverse their situation, and they know that too. Amidst the array of condolence messages they’ll be getting from others, let yours be a reminder that you’re here for them and can offer a compassionate, supportive, and loving space for them to talk when they need to.
If you can’t be around them physically due to distance, let them know that you’re just a phone call away. You might not always be available for them because you have your own life to live, and they know that, but knowing that you’re there if they need to talk will help feel them less lonely and lost following their loss.
Share fond memories of the person
Even speaking about the person who has passed might feel awkward or inappropriate. You might get the sense that you don’t want to remind a friend or family member of the person about their loss, as if they’ve somehow forgotten and are trying to think about something else.
However, speaking about the person in a positive light, such as sharing your favorite memory, can be a welcome break from the solemn weeks and months following the death. Sharing sweet memories such as times they made you laugh, times when they were a kind and generous person, a faithful friend, or praising their achievements may be exactly what their grieving family members and friends want to hear.
Again, many people will be offering their deepest condolences to those grieving, so it’s nice to offer something positive. Sharing memories and sentiments about how their love was such a wonderful person is a nice break from the sadness and heaviness of other condolence messages.
You may already know what it’s like to lose a close friend or family member – that doesn’t guarantee that you’ll know what to say when such a loss happens to someone else. However, it does mean that you’ll understand the importance of having someone there to listen to your feelings.
You might be tempted to share your personal experiences and speak how hard it was for you, and that may help a little, but try not to make it all about you. The grieving person will already be struggling with feelings of confusion and maybe in any one of the five stages of grief, so instead of trying to relate, just simply listen. Hear them out when they want to talk through memories, unresolved feelings, and challenging emotions related to their loved one’s death.
How to write a sympathy card
If you don’t have the chance to meet up with your grieving friend and instead choose to send a sympathy card, it helps to be mindful of what you write. ‘Sorry for your loss’ is perfectly fine, but it can feel a bit trite – this will be the message in nine out of ten sympathy cards they receive. If you want to make your message more heartfelt and sympathetic, take some extra time to craft a more meaningful and compassionate message.
If you’re stuck for what to say, we’ve included some templates below. Read through the following and see which one resonates with you. Piece several together to make it even more unique.
‘____ will be sorely missed. Know that I’m just a phone call away if you want to talk about anything. I’ll be thinking about you.’
‘I’m sad to hear about _____. I know you must be hurting right now, but you will get through this difficult time.’
‘I heard about _____’s passing. He/she was such a wonderful person and a good friend. They had big hearts and were always there for others. They’ll be sorely missed. Please let me know if there’s any way I can help you get through this difficult time.’
‘I’m deeply sorry about ____. He/she will always have a place in my heart and mind. He/she won’t be forgotten. Let me know if you need to chat or if there’s anything I can do for you.’
‘My heart goes out to you and all the family.’
Consider the circumstances
The words and approach you take when speaking to the bereaved may change and adapt and be more or less appropriate depending on the circumstances. For example, the cause of death, how long it’s been since they passed, and the mental and emotional state of the person to whom you’re offering your sympathy.
The death of a loved one is always a shocking and heavy experience, yet different circumstances can elicit a different reaction. For example, suppose the person who has passed was suffering from cancer for months or even years, and their passing was foreseen. In that case, there may be less immediate help needed in organizing things like money, space, and responsibilities because the family would have known in advance. The opposite is true if the deceased passed suddenly, such as through an accident or sudden illness.
What NOT to say when someone passes away
While there’s no right or wrong way to share your condolences, you’ll want to do your best to avoid agitating the person suffering or exacerbating their pain. Some examples of the ‘wrong thing’ to say in this situation include:
‘I understand what you’re going through (if you don’t)
This is a helpful thing to say if you’ve been in a similar situation – if you’ve had a loved one die in similar circumstances – but if not, please don’t offer these words. You might think they’re appropriate because you’ve been through a loss such as a lost job, the end of a marriage, or even the death of a house pet, but it’s inconsiderate and just plain awkward to compare losses such as these.
‘Everything happens for a reason’
Don’t try to rationalize the person’s loss. They neither want nor need you to. When you don’t know what to say, you might feel awkward and jump to the conclusion you have some responsibility to fix the situation. Since you can’t bring the person back from the dead, you might figure the next best bet is to rationalize the situation and finally, heroically, put everyone at ease.
Everything might happen for a reason, but that doesn’t do much to help the grieving family process their loss. In their own time, they will come to an acceptance of whatever reason the loss had to occur. That’s up to them and their grieving process.
It’s never easy to know what to say when someone passes away. We’ll all experience the loss of someone we love at one point or another, but the commonality of this experience makes it no less difficult.
Next time you find yourself about to give a condolence message, take a second and think about what you’re saying. Make sure it’s authentic and constructive, and remember that you don’t need to fix anything for the bereaved.