What to Say When Someone Dies: 10 Messages of Sympathy

When the heartbreaking befalls a friend, silence is not an option.

Whether we choose to share our message of condolence in person, or to write a sympathy card (or both), we have to figure out what to say when somebody dies.

And in creating our message of sympathy, we have to be careful not to say things that will make our friend feel worse.

The Best Traits Of Someone Who’s Trying to Help

Knowing what to say is just half our responsibility when we share a condolence message. Equally important is our intent. We love our friends dearly, but in any attempts to try to “fix” their loss, we will only create more grief.

Therefore, it’s important to know the best traits we can display as a compassionate, empathetic friend:

  • Awareness: Recognizing the loss without trying to fix it
  • Accepting: Not asking for our friend to change their feelings
  • Patience: Giving our friend time to grieve, mourn, and heal on their terms
  • Proactive: Not waiting for our friend to reach out to us when they might not know how. Offering active support, even if that support is silent.
  • Focus on their Feelings: Not trying to rationalize or explain the loss, not comparing things to our personal experiences.

What To Say in a Sympathy Message – And What NOT To!

It’s important to remember that the purpose of our words isn’t to try to change how a suffering person is feeling. They have to work through their grief at their own pace.

As a supportive friend or relative, our role is to support them through it, not to force them through it.

So here are some bacis templates and guidelines you can use to structure your communication in a supportive and compassionate manner. Then, it will be up to your judgmment to decide what and in what combination to use these ideas:

1. Don’t draw comparisons!

Even if you have also suffered a loss, right now a person in grief doesn’t want to hear about it, no matter how similar. Why? It may make them feel guilty about their feelings – here you are, doing fine despite your loss, while they’re hurting. This is like saying, “Hey, it’s no so bad – you’re gonna be just fine! After all – look at me!”

Instead, focus on the person and their feelings. Or alternatively, on something else they’re interested in such as a hobby or other activity that can give their mind some time to be in a state f relative-normalcy.

2. Don’t say: “I know how you feel.”

Because we almost certainly don’t. Even if we have suffered loss ourselves, our minds are programmed not to hold onto the most severe pains we face (just think about the last time you cut yourself or burned yourself – you can remember the pain was bad, but not the pain itself) as a means of protecting our psychological well being.

Instead try saying: “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” This is closer to the truth – we can recognize the pain we might feel, but we can’t truly imagine it. A grieving person doesn’t expect or even want us to understand – because understanding doesn’t reverse the loss. Therefore, that’s not what we need to be expressing. Here we are acknowledging where they’re at and supporting our core goals: to provide the space for the grieving party to fully feel and come to terms with their feelings.

3. Don’t say: “I know know what to say.”

Odds are, they will be hearing a lot about how “there are no words to describe this” and how there are no sufficient words. Of course, this is true, but likely not very helpful to someone in grief.

Try instead: “…just know I care” or “I’m here with/for you. Our ability to calmly accept the suffering of another person is one of the best gifts we can give during a challenging time. Even in silence, our presence can be powerful. In times like this, there often aren’t words to say. In north American culture we’re often uncomfortable with prolongued silences and feel the need to fill all the space. Resist that urge. Be present.

4. Don’t say: “He’s/She’s in a better place.”

 Putting aside the fact that the person grieving may not believe in a better place, this phrase doesn’t address their loss. The fact that their loved one is in a better place in no way lessens their loss or hurt.

Instead try: “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Which directly acknowledges the pain point – the grieving person’s loss.

5. Don’t say: “You’re so brave/strong.”

Someone in grief or experiencing loss has often had their world turned upside down. Things are confusing, uncertain. Strong is probably the last thing they’re feeling. By saying this, instead of creating a safe atmosphere to express themselves honestly, we’re putting pressure on them to act and feel a certain way.

Instead try: “You don’t have to be strong right now.” or “We all need help at a time like this. I’m here for you.” Not for every person or every situation, this idea can be helpful for someone who is trying to put on a brave face and not show their pain. Remember, we’re trying to provide a safe environment for them to honestly express their feelings and confront their loss. Ideally, this thought can be communicated without words, simply by how we behave. But it can be difficult to feel calm and secure when we’re close to somebody that’s hurting – so the words can serve us well too.

6. Don’t say:  “S/he lived a full life.” or “It was too soon.

More phrases that fail to address the griver’s loss. Of course it was too soon. And maybe they did live a “full” life. But they’re still gone and it still hurts.

Instead try: “What is your favorite memory about [name]? By spending less time talking and more time listening, we can help someone who is suffering from loss to acknowledge their feelings at their own pace. Importantly, asking for a favorite memory also uses the present tense, and the griever can think about something they still have – their memories.

Notice the contrast between this question and “What did you love most about [name]?” – which in the past tense highlights the fact that this individual is now gone.

7. Don’t say: “Call me if you need anything.”

…or “I’m here if you need anything”

First of all, we’re putting the burden on the grieving person to think of something, “anything” being completely open ended. Note that this is different than when we said “I’m here for you” earlier. “I’m here for you” means I’m here now, present, compassionate, supportive. “I’m here if you need anything” is about the future.

Instead try: “I’ll be by at noon to take you to lunch.” This great suggestion from Prevention.com is specific and doesn’t require any extra effort on behalf of the grieving party. We may worry that our friend doesn’t want to join us or want our help, but if that’s the case, they can express their disinterest. It’s still up to us to be proactively supportive. It doesn’t have to be dinner – we could help with housework, babysitting, or anything else that’s a part of their normal routine.

8. Don’t say:  “There’s a reason for everything…”

or “God chose them/It was their time/They brought this upon themselves”

All of these phrases fail to address our friend’s feelings, and frankly they’re all insenitive. Never say or imply that the person deserved it in any way – whether you’re framing it positively or negatively. We’re dealing with the loss and grief of our friend, and that’s what we need to address.

Instead say: Anything else. Or nothing at all.

9. Don’t ask: “Are you okay?/”How do you feel?”

This sounds like a compassionate and caring thing to ask, after all, we are concerned with the well being of our friend. But we’re putting them in a difficult, no-win situation here. First of all – of course they feel terrible about the loss. Asking this to someone who is obviously suffering can be a slap in the face, even if our intentions were good.

Furthermore, asking “are you okay” is what journalists would call a “leading question” – in that it has a preferred answer: “yes, I’m okay.” This implies that it’s not okay to suffer and grieve, which can make the recovery process more difficult as it closes us off to the individual that could use our support.

Instead ask: “Do you want to talk?” This way, the person experiencing the pain isn’t forced into a lose-lose situation, and can choose to open up if they wish. Sometimes, a suffering person may not want to say anything, and other times, they may want to feel they’re inn a safe and accepting environment in which to share their feelings.

10. Give a hug instead of saying something.

Sometimes, the best way to connect with another person is through physical contact, not through words. It’s a form of silent but active support that can mean a lot and make a big difference.

Remember, when it comes to comforting, empathizing with, and supporting someone who is suffering from grief and loss – in particular the grief and loss of a loved one, the most important thing is that we remain calm, open, loving and compassionate.

It is often hardest to do this exactly when our loved ones need it most. But learning to do so can go a long way in helping these people move on and continue living despite their loss.

Being a good friend is one of the most important aspects of creating a better world. But our responsibilities don’t end there. Read on to find our more about how you can contribute to our world:

  1. The Start of Happiness
  2. How to Feel Better When Life Goes Wrong
  3. Why The World Needs You To Crack The Happiness Code
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AJ Walton

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2 thoughts on “What to Say When Someone Dies: 10 Messages of Sympathy”

  1. I need to say that as a grieving mother I hated the question “How are you feeling?” It’s a question that is not open ended and put me on the spot to answer. All I could think when people asked that question was, “How do you think I feel? My daughter DIED!” It is the most painful experience in anyone’s life and there are no words to tell anyone how awful it is.

    “Do you want to talk?” is much better as far as I am concerned. It would give me a chance to say, “No, I can’t talk.” or say as little or as much as I wanted.

    1. Dru – thanks so much for giving your input and helping me make this resource better – and for finding a much better alternative that I missed. I’ve updated it to reflect your idea.

      It was really challenging to write this piece, sift through the various ideas around the web and pick ones that don’t have some unintended hurt attached. Do you have any other ideas for appropriate things to say or other signs of support?

      With gratitude – Andrew

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