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. The most important thing to communicate is that you care about the bereaved person and you are available as a source of support.
- “I’m sorry for your loss.” While this phrase has become a cliché, it is also 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.
- “You are in my thoughts/I’m thinking of you.” Letting the person know that you are aware of the emotional difficulty of the situation can help a bereaved person feel less isolated in his or her experience, and reminding the person that you care enough to be thinking about him or her can help a bereaved person feel less isolated in the world.
- “He/she 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 him or her can be powerful. Grief can leave people feeling alone, and by reminding them that you love them and are there for them you can remind them that they are not alone.
- “When you’re ready, I’d like to get together to learn more about what the person who died was like.” If you didn’t know the person who died, offering to listen to the bereaved can not only make the bereaved feel cared for but can also take some of the pressure off of immediate interactions. Letting the bereaved know that you’re there for him or her in the future can be a huge comfort in a stressful and painful time.
- Share a memory of the person who died.
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 can 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:
1. Don’t deny that the person who died is dead.
2. Don’t deny that the bereaved is in emotional pain.
3. Don’t deny that this death may change everyone’s lives.
- “I know how you are feeling.” While this may seem like an empathic statement, it can often have the opposite effect. Everyone experiences loss and grief differently, and you should encourage the bereaved to have his or her 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.” Unless you know for sure that the person who died and the bereaved person both believed in an afterlife, this statement has the potential to be offensive. Instead, try acknowledging that the bereaved may be in pain, and that that is okay.
- “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.” Especially after a prolonged or painful illness, death can seem like a relief. Still, a grieving person needs time and space to grieve. Support the bereaved person in taking the time and space that he or she may need.
- “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. In fact, it may make the bereaved person feel even more isolated in his or her 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/slow so you had a chance to say goodbye.” Death is incredibly difficult, no matter the form it takes. While you may want to help the person look on the “upside,” the he or she may need some time to just live in the grief.
- “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 his or her feelings. Don’t pressure him or her to “get over it.”
For advice on when to express your condolences, see our article When to Offer Condolences.
For advice on things you can do to help someone who has experienced a loss, see our article Offering to Help When Someone Has Experienced a Loss.