How To Express Sympathy: What To Say And What Not to Say
We’ve compiled a list of things to say—and things to avoid saying—when offering condolences.
What To Say To Express Sympathy
The goal of expressing sympathy is to offer your compassion and concern for the bereaved. You can say how much you will miss the person who died or you can share a happy memory. While it might be hard to know what to say to someone who lost a loved one, the most important thing to communicate is that you care about the bereaved person and you're available as a source of support.
"I’m sorry for your loss."
While this phrase has become a cliché, it's a simple and succinct way of communicating your empathy. If you are at a loss for words, telling a person “I’m sorry for your loss” can let the person know that you care.
This is another safe option. Other variations: "my deepest condolences" or "my condolences to you and your family."
“You're in my thoughts/I’m thinking of you."
Letting the person know you are aware of the emotional difficulty of the situation can help a bereaved person feel less isolated in their experience, and reminding the person that you care enough to be thinking about them can help a bereaved person feel less isolated in the world.
"S/he was a wonderful person."
"I will miss him/her."
"This must be so hard for you."
Acknowledging the pain and grief that the bereaved is feeling can be very consoling. Many people who experience a loss feel alone and isolated in their feelings, and by acknowledging the emotional difficulty of the situation you can help make the bereaved feel less alone.
“I love you."
If you’re close enough, reminding a grieving person that you love them can be powerful. Grief can leave people feeling alone; by reminding them that you love them and are there for them can be a reminder that they're not alone.
"When you’re ready, I’d like to get together to learn more about [the deceased's name]."
If you didn’t know the person who died, offering to listen to the bereaved can make them feel cared for and take some of the pressure off of immediate interactions. Letting the bereaved know that you’re there for them in the future can be a huge comfort during a stressful and painful time.
Share a memory of the person who died.
It doesn't have to be an epic revelation, you can think of something small and meaningful. Perhaps they taught you something you still use in your daily life, or maybe something funny they did that always makes you smile.
What Not To Say To Someone Who Has Experienced A Loss
Many people are afraid to say the “wrong thing” to someone who has just experienced a loss. Because a bereaved person is typically feeling overwhelmed and highly emotional, the stakes feel very high. You should try to speak from a place of love and compassion, and honestly acknowledge the situation. Three good rules to follow when figuring out what not to say are:
- Don’t deny that the person who died is dead.
- Don’t deny that the bereaved is in emotional pain.
- Don’t deny that this death may change everyone’s lives forever.
"I know how you are feeling."
While this may seem like an empathic statement, it often has the opposite effect. Everyone experiences loss and grief differently, and you should encourage the bereaved to have their unique experience of the loss. A better way to express your empathy might be, “If you want to talk about how you are feeling, know that I am here for you.”
"S/he is in a better place."
This statement has the potential to be offensive. "So being dead is better than being with me and our children?" This is often said to comfort the bereaved, especially when a person has no idea what to say, but it can have the opposite effect.
"How are you doing/holding up?"
For most people who have experienced a death, the answer to this question is “Not well.” While we want to check in with people who are in grief, the casualness of this question often forces someone struggling with grief to put on a false face.
"Now you can start moving on with your life."
After a prolonged or painful illness death can seem like a relief, but you should never make it seem like the loss of a loved one eliminated a burden. A grieving person needs time and space to process the loss and grieve, especially if they spent months or years providing care to the deceased.
"I don’t know what I would do if my [deceased’s relationship to the bereaved] died."
While this statement may be absolutely true for you, it does nothing to comfort the bereaved. It may make the bereaved person feel even more isolated in their grief. Instead, try acknowledging the profoundness of the loss and let the person know that you are there as a source of comfort and support.
"At least the death was quick so there wasn’t pain."
Death is incredibly difficult no matter the form it takes. While you may want to help the person look on the “upside,” you're making an assumption that can be taken the wrong way by a person consumed by grief.
"At least you had a chance to say goodbye."
It's often viewed as a positive thing if the bereaved was with their loved one when they passed, but it can also be a small consolation in the grand scheme of thing. Here's a good rule to keep in mind when expressing sympathy: Never start a sentence with "at least."
"Don’t worry, you’ll feel better soon."
While you may want to help the bereaved look toward the future, it’s important to give a grieving person the time and space to experience their feelings. Grief doesn't have a timeline so don’t pressure them to “get over it.”
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