What to say when someone dies - expressing condolences with tact
“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.” - William Shakespeare, Macbeth
Sometimes “there are no words” to express grief, yet at other times, words feel like the only comfort we can offer to the bereaved.
We all know that losing a loved one is one of the most heart wrenching experiences a person can experience and that finding the right words to say - at the right time - is crucial at these times of acute loss.
It is natural to want to comfort someone who is grieving, yet because every bereavement is unique, it can sometimes be hard to know exactly what to say. In the worst cases, our own fear of confronting death and anxieties about saying the “wrong thing” might even stop us from reaching out to the bereaved. But as the quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth implies, grief shrouded in silence is a destructive, unhealthy force.
Bereavement can be a lonely experience, so we must use our words to support those living through it - both emotionally and practically. Some tactful, compassionate words can help to give bereaved people the confidence to speak openly about their grief and the strength to “keep going” through the tough times.
What to say to someone who is grieving
There is no right or wrong way to feel about the death of a loved one and no correct way to grieve. People who are living with bereavement experience a huge range of emotions in the days around the death of a loved one.
They are also likely to be receiving large amounts of messages from people expressing their condolences. In the early stages of their mourning, you could send a sincere, simple message of support and follow up a few days later to see how they are holding up.
They may be overwhelmed by messages of support or simply too busy grieving to reply to every message, so don’t be offended if you don’t get a reply. Your thoughtfulness for getting in touch with them will have been noted and valued.
It is important to be patient and understanding. The grieving process can take a long time. Be there for them and let them know that you care.
Here are some things you can say to someone who has lost a loved one:
- "I'm so sorry for your loss." Express your sympathy and empathise with the person at this tough time.
- "I'm here for you if you need anything." Offering your help and support with day-to-day tasks or funeral planning may help lift a burden from the person.
- "I can't imagine what you're going through." If the bereavement is out of our sphere of personal experience, it’s best to acknowledge this and also to acknowledge how difficult it is for those who have lost a loved one.
- "I’m here if you need to talk." Sometimes the best help you can offer to someone who is recently bereaved is to simply listen to them talk about their loss and how they are feeling.
- "I'm thinking of you." - Grief can make a person feel isolated and trapped. A simple acknowledgement that they are in your thoughts can go a long way.
When somebody has died unexpectedly - perhaps without warning at a young age or in an accident - the shock to those they leave behind can be profound. Their close family in particular may be experiencing acute bereavement, with the reality of the situation tough to process and everyday life hard to navigate.
It can be difficult to know exactly what to say in this situation, but it is key to let the person know you are available to listen to them and help them process their grief. If you are a close friend, then perhaps pay them a visit or even offer to stay for a few days to help take care of everyday things like cooking and cleaning while they come to terms with the situation.
Some words of comfort to offer when someone dies unexpectedly:
- “I just can’t believe it. No words can express the shock”.
- “Sometimes life just makes no sense. This must be so hard for you”.
- “I can’t believe this is happening. We’ll try to get through it together”.
- “Let me come over with some food and help you at home”.
What to say to someone who has lost a parent
Losing a parent is one of the most heartbreaking moments a person can experience - regardless of whether the bereavement comes during our childhood or later in life. Our parents guide us through life’s challenges with love and support, so a world suddenly without them can be a real shock.
Just as when supporting anyone who is recently bereaved, let the person know that you are there for them and are thinking about them. For example, even if their mother had been suffering from a long illness, it’s best to avoid the cliche “She’s in a better place now”. If you are offering condolences to someone who has lost their mother, phrases like those below may be more appropriate.
- “Your mother must have been a wonderful person to raise someone like you.”
- “This must be a terrible shock for all of your family. Please let me know if I can help in any way.”
- “There is no one in the world like your mother. She was a special woman, and she will be with you always..”
- “I know it’s a horrible time now, but try to take some comfort in the amazing memories you have of her.”
- “I know how special your mum was to you. I am so sorry for your loss.”
What NOT to say to someone who is grieving
It’s best to avoid using cliches when offering your condolences. Simply parroting overused phrases can be hurtful to people who are grieving. Cliches are impersonal, and some phrases can serve only to belittle the seriousness of a bereaved person’s grief.
Also, remember at this time that it is not about you. Keep the focus on them. This is not the time to share your own experience of bereavement unless they ask you about it specifically.
Phrases such as the following are best avoided.
- Don't say, "I know how you feel." - Unless you have experienced a similar loss, you don't really know how the person feels, and this could seem disingenuous. And everybody experiences grief in profoundly different ways.
- Don't say, "They're in a better place now." - This may not be comforting to the person who is grieving. What hurts is that they are no longer here.
- Don't say, "It was their time." - This may make the person feel like their loved one's death was inevitable or a better outcome than staying alive.
- Don't say, "You're strong. You'll get through this." - The person may not feel strong right now and can only think of one day at a time.
When supporting someone who is grieving, try to avoid offering unsolicited advice. The desire to want to help comes from a good place, of course, but everybody needs time and space to “figure out” how they will cope with bereavement. Just because something helped you, it may be completely inappropriate for their individual circumstances.
If you are supporting a grieving friend and don’t know what to say, just spend some time with them or suggest taking a walk together for a change of scenery. Sometimes your presence is enough, and eventually, the right words will come to you.
Expressing religious condolences
If you are religious but don’t know if the bereaved person (and their family) followed a particular religion, it may be better to avoid offering condolences that are overtly religious and offer simple words of sympathy and offers of help and support instead.
By avoiding phrases that are specific to one religion, you can show your sympathy in a way that is universally appreciated.
When someone dies in the UK, we often offer the phrase “Rest in peace”. Even though Western society is increasingly secular, this phrase of Biblical origin which alludes to life after death in tranquillity is still deeply ingrained into society. It is the common Christian phrase of condolence and has slipped into the wider vocabulary.
It is important to note, however, that there are some occasions, for example, when someone is of the Hindu faith, that “Rest in peace” is not appropriate to be used.
How do Muslims express condolences when someone dies?
In Islam, it is customary to express condolences to the bereaved by saying, “Allah yarhamhu / yarhamha”, meaning “May God have mercy on him/her” and "Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji'un." This means, "Indeed, we belong to Allah, and indeed, to Him, we will return."
If you are not Muslim yourself but wish to offer sympathy and condolences to a Muslim friend or loved one, you could say something like: “I am so sorry for your loss. I hope they will find peace and you will regain your strength”.
How do Jews express condolences when someone dies?
In Judaism, the expression “May (his or her) memory be for a blessing” is commonly used to express condolences to the bereaved. In writing, you may see the letters Z”L after the name of the deceased to indicate that phrase. This is an abbreviation of the Hebrew words “Zichrono l’bracha”, which literally means “memories for blessing”.
How do Hindus express condolences when someone dies?
In Hinduism, there is no concept of heaven or hell. Hindus believe that when a person dies, their soul is reincarnated into another body. Because of this belief, saying "Rest in Peace" to a Hindu can be seen as insensitive and disrespectful.
The most common offerings of condolence in the Hindu tradition are; “Om Shanti”, meaning “may all be at peace”, and “Aatma Ko Sadgati Prapt Ho”, which means “May their soul attain Moksha”. In English, you could say something like: “May his/her soul be free to continue its journey”.
What to say before the funeral
The runup to a funeral is always a challenging time for the close friends and family of the deceased. It can sometimes be hard to conjure up the right words of support too. It’s only human to want to offer some words of comfort, but saying something like “I hope it’s a nice funeral” does not really sound right.
If someone you know, for example, a work colleague, is attending a funeral, it’s good to:
- Express your condolences. Let the person know that you are sorry for their loss. You can say something like, "I'm so sorry for your loss. I’m sure they were a wonderful person”.
- Offer your support. Let the person know that you are there for them and that you will help in any way you can. You can say something like, "Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help." At work, for example, you may also take on some of their duties in the short term.
- Be respectful of the person's grief. Everyone grieves differently, so be patient and understanding. The person may not be ready to talk about their loss, and that is okay.
- If talking about the funeral service, you could say, for example, “I hope it’s a beautiful service and brings you and your family some peace and closure”.
If you are close to the person and you can do so, consider attending the funeral with them. Any extra support will be appreciated, and it can make them feel valued and loved.
If you cannot attend the service on the day of the funeral, try to be sensitive to the needs and emotions of the bereaved. At the same time, do not be afraid to approach them and talk to them.
You could ask them a few questions about the funeral - where it will be held and if their family will be coming. Wish them your best for what will be a difficult day. A phrase that can provide some support without sounding forced is: “I will be thinking about you today, and I hope it [the funeral] goes as well as these things can”.
Sending condolences in the age of social media and instant messaging
One of the most common methods of communication these days is social media and instant messaging on smartphones. Messages sent in these apps may be shorter and more colloquial than face-to-face conversations or emails, but are no less profound - or appreciated - when it comes to supporting those who have lost a loved one.
What to text to a friend or colleague on the day of the funeral:
- “Thinking of you today. Let me know if I can do anything for you”.
- “Hope the funeral goes as well as these things can.”
- “Sending love on this tough day”.
- Hope today goes ok. Let’s meet up for a chat soon?”
After the funeral, you may want to send a quick text or message to check in with them and see how they are doing.
What to say to the family and close friends of the deceased at a funeral
As a guest at a funeral, it’s natural to want to offer a few words of condolence to those closest to the deceased. Unless you have a deep, personal connection to them, it’s usually best to keep your words simple and respectful.
- “It was a beautiful service. So sorry for your loss”.
- “So sad to see you in these circumstances. We’re all thinking of you”.
- “He/she was loved by so many people, and we will all miss them so much”.
- “They were a good friend/colleague to me. I can’t believe they’re gone”.
If the funeral involves the scattering of ashes or you are attending such a ceremony after a cremation, people often like to share a few words about the deceased. Anecdotes, memories, and even a funny story (if it seems appropriate) about a time you cherished with the deceased could contribute to honouring their memory. If you’re speaking to their relatives, you could reminisce about their positive impact on your life or how they helped you through a hard time, for example.
What to say to someone who is bereaved after the funeral
Although the funeral can possibly be thought of as a milestone along the pathway of grief, it is still early in the journey for those living with the loss of a loved one. Be sensitive to this when talking to those who have suffered a loss, and treat them kindly.
Remind yourself that grief does not follow a common timeline. It may be tempting to offer what seems like caring words: “Time is a great healer, things will get better soon”, or words to that effect, but healing can only come from within that person and their own processing of the bereavement.
Here are some constructive things you can do - and say - to someone who is bereaved in the period following the funeral.
- Show that you care by checking in with them regularly. Drop them a message or email or arrange to see them just to chat and see how they are feeling. “Hi. Just wondered how you were feeling? Do you want to meet up for a drink/coffee/chat soon?”
- Acknowledge that it’s going to be a while before things feel “normal” again and that there is no quick fix to make them feel better. “This must be so hard for you still. I’m here for you in the long run”.
- Make other people in their social circle of friends aware of what the person is going through and encourage them to get in touch with a message of support or an invitation to meet up. “I heard the sad news about your mother/father/etc. So sorry for your loss. Wondered if you might want to meet up sometime soon? It’s been too long.”
Gone but not forgotten - what to say on the one year anniversary of a death
Anniversaries of the death of a loved one can be particularly hard to navigate for the family and friends they left behind. The first anniversary is usually the toughest and can let loose a waterfall of memories and emotions for those still living with grief and loss. A year can seem like a long time in the abstract, but it’s just a small fraction of the average lifetime, and as we have already said, grieving is a long process that follows no set timeline.
Some people will choose to visit the grave of their loved one, look at old photographs and relive memories or possibly even hold a memorial gathering. Memorial events may be a more relaxed affair than the funeral a year in the past and celebrate the life of the deceased but still call for sensitivity when speaking to the bereaved. Even if the tone is lighthearted and guests are recounting fun times with the deceased, pick your anecdotes wisely. Make sure they are appropriate and won’t cause offence to anyone present.
What to say to someone on the anniversary of the death of a loved one
“It’s great to be together again, but I miss him/her so much still”.
“I still feel like she/he is here with us”.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year already, seems like yesterday…”.
“They would want to see you happy today”.
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