In the midst of grief, it can be hard to know what words will offer comfort. Often, family and friends don’t know how they should respond when someone is grieving because they might not have experienced that kind of loss themselves.
If you’re trying to find a way to express your sympathy in this difficult time, there are better ways than just saying, “Sorry for your loss.”
Here are some alternatives you could try, according to mental health professionals and grief experts.
Founder and Owner, Sympathy Message Ideas
You should always try to offer your sympathy and condolences to those who have suffered a loss. However, just saying ‘sorry for your loss’ can seem a little impersonal. It doesn’t require much thought or effort.
It’s definitely better than not saying anything at all, but if you can think of or offer something more, then you should try to. There are some alternative ways to show how sorry you are and still be there for someone.
“Whenever I think of __, the first thing that will come to me will be his/her warm smile and generous spirit.”
Many people coping with a loss want to remember the good times they had with the deceased. So instead of saying “sorry for your loss,” try mentioning a special memory that you had of them or an amusing story that involved the both of you.
Anything that will be a reminder of the positive parts of the deceased and all the wonderful moments they shared, rather than focusing solely on how terrible it is that they are gone.
- “I will never forget all the amazing times I had with __. He/she would always bring a smile to my face, and I will miss them dearly. One of my happiest memories of __ is the fishing trip we took a few summers ago. It was such a blast, and I will always think back fondly on that and all the brilliant times we shared.”
- “Whenever I think of __, the first thing that will come to me will be his/her warm smile and generous spirit. I shall never forget them. My condolences.”
“I know words could never hope to ease your pain, but I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.”
Whilst we can never fully understand what someone is going through after losing a loved one, we can show some understanding. When reaching out, we can demonstrate how difficult this must be for them while acknowledging how little we can truly do to help.
- “I can’t begin to know how hard this must be for you, but I just wanted to reach out and let you know I’m here if you need anyone.”
- “I know words could never hope to ease your pain, but I wanted you to know I’m thinking of you.”
- “I wish I could do more to help. You will be in my thoughts and prayers.”
“If you need someone to talk to or just listen; I can be there for you. Please don’t hesitate to ask or call me.”
When someone has experienced bereavement, they will be dealing with so many different emotions and thoughts. Quite often, it helps to have someone they can vent those feelings to, allowing them to try and make sense of what has happened.
If you were close to the bereaved, then you could offer to be there for them as someone to talk to or just to listen. Saying something like “If you need someone to talk to or just listen; I can be there for you. Please don’t hesitate to ask or call me.”
- “I was so saddened to hear of __’s passing. If you need to talk or a friend to listen, then I can be there for you whenever you need me.”
- “I know that sometimes talking can help, so if you want to chat or a friendly ear, then just ask.”
- “I’m always just a call or text away. If you need a hug, a shoulder to cry on or anything else, I’m there.”
“I know you must be really busy right now and so I can pick up a few things when I go shopping if you’d like.”
Whilst words can be comforting, actual support is going to be the most beneficial. The grief after a loss can leave some people so overwhelmed they can barely get by. Having someone offer to help them with the day-to-day aspects of life can be so important.
That might be picking up from or taking their children to school, doing the grocery shopping, cleaning the house, etc.
If you can, and it’s very important not to let them down, then offer some practical help instead of just saying you’re sorry for their loss. It will certainly be more useful to those trying to deal with their grief.
- “If you’re struggling at all, then I’m more than happy to come and help out with anything you need – cleaning, cooking, etc.”
- “I know you must be really busy right now and so I can pick up a few things when I go shopping if you’d like.”
- “I’m taking my kids to see a movie on __, and I’d be happy to take your kids too if it would help.”
Grief Recovery Expert | Author, “Widows Wear Stilettos”
“Sorry for your loss” is among many clichéd attempts at offering sympathy. Even though the person saying (or writing) it doesn’t mean it to be, the phrase itself lacks sincerity, warmth, or even acknowledgment of who has been lost.
We can file this phrase along with “I know how you feel” or “Call me if you need anything,” both equally useless.
“But I don’t know what to say…”
If you are uncomfortable dealing with a loss situation, you are in good company. One of the primary things that I hear from those who surround the bereaved is, “I don’t know what to say,” so they either resort to clichés as outlined above or worse – say absolutely nothing, even at the funeral.
The fact is that as a society, we are uncomfortable with death. However, I am always quick to point out that not dealing with loss doesn’t make it go away; rather, it keeps us ill-prepared for the moment when we are in the position of offering sympathy to another.
Dashing off a worn-out cliche (or worse, staying silent) is tantamount to turning your back. Going one step further, it is a subtle form of selfishness because you are more concerned with your own discomfort than with the person who has suffered the loss. The bereaved are desperately looking for strength and support during a time of grief, and you can provide that for them.
“You may not be ready to talk right now, but when you are, I am here, and I am ready to listen.”
Make no mistake; somewhere along the way, we have lost the art of saying “I’m sorry,” and these are magical words indeed. Saying “I’m so sorry” with genuine sorrow and compassion is an acknowledgment of the loss while offering an opening for the bereaved to talk about their feelings at that moment in time. This is a wonderful gift.
Perhaps take their hand while you are speaking to them. Follow your “I’m so sorry” by saying the person’s name (another thing that people are reluctant to do), and if you knew them, reiterate how much they will be missed. You can even share a memory or two.
You might follow your “I’m sorry” (and your reminiscence and remembrances) with, “You may not be ready to talk right now, but when you are, I am here, and I am ready to listen.” Then follow through with that assurance.
Don’t simply say, “Call me if you need anything,” because the call will never come. The bereaved already feel like a burden to those around them and making that call makes them feel even more of a burden.
“I am so sorry… I can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in right now.”
When I became widowed, a wonderful former colleague of mine said, “Carole, I am so sorry – I can’t begin to imagine the pain you’re in right now.” To this day, I count this as one of the perfect things to say. She acknowledged both her sorrow and my pain without resorting to clichés.
If you know someone who is grieving, before you say anything, ask yourself:
- “If I were them, would I want to hear what I am about to say?
- “Will what I am about to say help someone who is grieving?”
- “Will what I am about to say to bring comfort and reassurance?”
Remember, being in the position of consoling another is a comforting gift. Do not be afraid or too uncomfortable to share your own gifts of compassion with others.
Pre-Licensed Clinical Mental Health Counselor, Emerge Counseling
“Does your family have any allergies? I’d love to bring over some meals for you during this painful time.”
Before I say more, consider the phrase for a moment. How does it begin? “I.” The premise of your well-meaning statement begins by signaling your own discomfort with the person’s grief and loss.
Of course, it is the conventional, polite way to express sympathy, but is there a better way?
Begin with the person in mind. Reflect what they must be feeling: “You’re really missing [name], and that’s a devastating loss.” You know your person better than a stranger writing this, so tailor your response to them. You don’t have to presume to know their feeling, either.
Depending on the person, helping them to talk about their loss may be the most helpful thing you can do. Because discussing grief can be so uncomfortable, many people lose sight of the possibility that the person simply wants to share memories or what the loss means to them.
Giving your friend space to share stories or simply sit in silence could be healing.
However, sometimes people can’t name their emotions – grief can be overwhelming. If that’s the case, another route you could go is being helpful. Rather than vague offers that people can have difficulty accepting, such as, “Is there anything I can do?” Try offering something specific and tangible that would be helpful to your grieving friend.
Here are some examples:
- “Is there a good day for me to come over and mow your lawn this weekend?”
- “Does your family have any allergies? I’d love to bring over some frozen meals for you during this painful time, so you don’t have to worry about cooking.”
Offering direct actions makes accepting help easier and takes the pressure off the person who is grieving.
Supportive Services for Veteran Families Program Manager, Opportunity House
“I wish you peace in the days ahead.”
After losing my mother, I realized how the words I often used offered no comfort to me.
I was in turmoil. I felt a ton of emotions. I was overwhelmed at all that needed to be done. My husband hadn’t lost a parent, so he really didn’t understand. My relationship with my siblings had fallen apart. My Dad looked to me to help him figure it out and move forward.
What I needed most was peace…
- Peace that I knew I had done all I could do for her.
- Peace that I was making the right decisions with and for my Dad.
- Peace with my siblings.
- Emotional peace.
- Peace at home, so I didn’t get angry when my husband didn’t understand.
Today, I say, “I wish you peace in the days ahead.” I acknowledge that right now, there is no peace, no calm. But in the days ahead, you will find peace.
Peace that says you are making the right choices. Peace that means not looking back with regret. Peace that means—you are doing your best to deal with all that is on your plate.
Angela Amias, LISW
Licensed Therapist | Co-Founder, Alchemy of Love
“I’m thinking about you, and I’m here for you. Please let me know how I can best support you during this time.”
Culturally, we don’t know how to talk about death, so many of us feel anxious about saying “the wrong thing.” Someone who is experiencing grief often feels very alone and isolated in their experience.
Here are some ways to overcome the fear of saying the wrong thing and reach out to connect and let someone know you’re thinking about them. “I’m thinking about you, and I’m here for you. Please let me know how I can best support you during this time.”
Let the grieving person know you’re there and want to support them.
Because pain and grief are both isolating experiences, mourners often feel alone in their experience. What makes this worse is that many people end up avoiding the mourning person because of their own fear of saying the wrong thing. Communicating your presence and your wish to be supportive is tremendously valuable.
Grief is a complicated experience. People feel a range of emotions beyond just sadness. You can show you understand this by saying something like, “I know you’re going through a lot right now. I’m here to listen in whatever way would be helpful.”
Often, grieving people fear expressing emotions such as anger, fear, or (in the case of a death of a loved one who suffered for many years) relief. Let them know you’re there to listen—openly and non-judgmentally.
Offer support in ways you’ve found helpful in the past. “When I lost __, my friend took care of __, and I found that helpful. It’s something I’d be able to do for you if you want me to.”
This is a way of offering a specific kind of support that lets the grieving person know you’re there for them while also allowing them to tell you something they would find helpful.
Follow up a few weeks later. Say things like, “I’m thinking about you. How are you doing? What do you need?” This is such a valuable way of communicating support.
When people lose someone close to them, they receive a lot of messages and cards in the early days but are left feeling alone and disconnected as the grief process continues.
If it feels appropriate, and if you have memories of the deceased, grieving people often need to hear others’ experiences with their lost loved ones and share their own memories and stories.
Bereavement Consultant | Author, “An Uncommon Farewell: How to Honor the Loss of Your Loved One In the Time of Pandemic“
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
With the experience of loss and grief now front and center worldwide, many have outgrown their pre-Covid ways of being, including how to respond to news of a death. As in almost every area, people are searching for more heartfelt connections and more meaningful ways to express compassion.
“I can only imagine how difficult this must be.”
When expressing sympathy, it’s important to note that people can feel your intent and the energy of your words. As humans, we instinctively know that simple, honest, and from the heart statement is always best. Although “I’m sorry for your loss” is a standard phrase, it may not feel personal or warm enough to express your true compassion.
Here are options to say to the newly bereaved. Take a moment to determine what feels truly authentic to your heart, and know that it will be received in a completely different way.
- “I’m here for you.“
- “Sending you so much love.“
- “My heart hurts for you.“
- “There are no words.” (I don’t know what to say is also perfectly ok to say.)
- “I can only imagine how difficult this must be.“
- “Holding you close.“
- “I pray you feel all the love surrounding you.“
- “I was so lucky to know him/her.“
- “I was so saddened to hear this.“
- “He/she will be so deeply missed.“
Just like the words you say, the energy of the action you take reverberates to the bereaved and can have a tremendous impact on their healing.
Refrain from asking details of their loved one’s physical passing. Likewise, saying “They are in a better place,” or “This is God’s plan,” or “God has a plan,” does not resonate and often offends those who are in the midst of grief.
Instead, ask, “Is it ok if I tell you how much he/she impacted me?” In telling your story, please remember to keep it positive and brief, as the attention span of those who have recently suffered a trauma or loss is limited. For those who can delicately weave in gentle humor about their loved one, this is often much appreciated and can help them feel connected.
Instead of saying “Please let me know if you need anything,” or dropping off a dinner, they may not want, think about 2 or 3 small specific ways you can show support and offer them choices. For example:
- “I’m available any morning this week and would love to drop off your favorite (latte, breakfast sandwich, smoothie, etc.)
- “I can plan on picking up the kids for the next two weeks if that would be helpful.”
- “I’m available in the evenings this week to go sit by the lake (or backyard, park or any special place) with you if you’re up for it.”
- “Is there is any detail or errand I can take off your plate this week?”
These questions may invite them to think specifically of how you may help them.
One of the most soothing things to many newly bereaved (especially in a post-pandemic world) can be touch. Using your discretion, this may be in the form of a sincere hug, a gentle touch on their hand, arm, back, or leg.
One of the smallest but most impactful gestures is to tell the grieving person you will be lighting a candle for them every morning. There is great comfort for the bereaved in knowing they are being thought of at that particular time. They will feel it.
And finally, consider making a note on your calendar to check in with the grieving person 2 or 3 months from the date of their loved one’s passing. This is the time when the cards and phone calls dwindle when they often most need support.
Simply genuinely say, “I’m thinking about you today. How are you?”
Minister | Hospice Nurse
There are some simple things we can do to help someone who has recently lost someone in death other than saying, “sorry for your loss.”
Be perceptive, knowing comments and actions may not be the way they would normally speak or act. There may be feelings of anger or even guilt. You may have to say nothing or say, “I understand.”
Say nothing, just listen
Perhaps the most important thing we can say is not saying anything. Instead, what we can do is listen. To start the conversational ball rolling, ask, “Would you like to talk about it?”
Do not offer any advice or really say anything; just listen intently. Initially, if a question should arise, if appropriate, reply with a question. So if they should say, “Is it normal to feel this way?” Ask them what they think would be normal.
This helps them to continue getting the pain out. You may be amazed at how this helps them as well as you.
Offer reassurance if you can
Your reassurance has to be positive and, above all, true. Think of the various stages of grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. They may go through all or some of these stages in your presence—some for longer times and some for shorter times.
A lot of people have such feelings as they face the loss of a loved one.
Be there for them, not in word, but in deed
My favorite suggestion is not something we say rather something we do: Really be there for them. During the first few days, they will be deluged with friends and family and those providing comfort.
“I’m heading to the store; what do you need that I can pick up?”
Most will offer assistance. Especially with the elderly, they often will not ask as they will not want to be a bother. Instead of asking if there is anything you can do, you can say, “I’m heading to the store; what do you need that I can pick up?”
Or if you are close, simply go and do some light cleaning or laundry for them. If you’re handy, there are always things that need fixing around the home.
Be there for them even after a few weeks and months
What about a few weeks or months after? While we are going back to our normal lives, their normal is new. They may awaken from their sleep, thinking the sounds they hear is their loved one.
In my personal research on this, one suggestion I really liked was to mark down their anniversary dates such as wedding day or the day of the death. Then be there for them on those days.
Invite them on gatherings
Don’t simply say, “come any time.” Instead, set a date and insist they come. If they do not, try another time. Even if they never come, just knowing they are wanted will be a big emotional help for them.
Write them a letter
Write a letter (not an email). This I often do a month after the passing. This way, they can read it over and over, and they may get solace from the carefully chosen words you wrote.
Dani Dierking LPC, LAT, ATR
Licensed Professional Counselor and Licensed Art Therapist, Bright Iris Art Therapy, LLC
“I know my words can’t help your situation, but I see you in pain, and I’m here.”
Consider what you are trying to convey when you encounter someone who is grieving. It is likely you want to offer your support, empathy, and compassion, even if you don’t know the person well. Take the pressure off because what you are going to say won’t undo what happened and likely won’t relieve the person’s pain. Reconnect with your intention, and the words will flow more meaningfully.
Offer a small thread of connection
In a momentary interaction, you have the power to offer a small thread of connection. If these threads accumulate, this person might feel more seen and heard, leading to less shame in their suffering. This will help them feel emotionally safe and supported in their community when they need it most.
Consider their preferences in offering them support
If the grieving person isn’t a stranger, consider their preferences in offering them support. Maybe talking about the loss is uncomfortable for them, but you can support them in other ways.
- Would they appreciate a home-cooked meal or a coffee?
- Might they like to spend some time with you doing something they enjoy
- Does it make sense to ask them if they wanted a hug?
Open the door to vulnerability
It shows respect to the person to acknowledge that they can grieve on their own terms. They don’t have to give you details about the death. They don’t have to talk about it ever if they don’t want to. It is powerful to simply communicate that you are there for them when and/or if they do want to talk.
Keep your words simple
Keep it simple. You don’t need to be eloquent or say anything special. Keep the above points in mind and be yourself. Here are some examples of better alternatives to “I’m sorry for your loss”:
- “I know you are going through something hard right now.”
- “I heard what happened and want you to know I care about you.”
- “I know my words can’t help your situation, but I see you in pain, and I’m here.”
- “Let me know if you want a distraction or to talk. I want to support you.”
- “What do you need right now?”
- “I love you.”
Susan Zimmerman, ChFC, LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist | Co-Founder, Mindful Asset Planning | Author, “Rays of Hope: Lighting the Way in Life’s Transitions and Losses”
Grief, a natural response to loss, is a unique experience for each individual. One of the most important aspects of hearing condolences is learning how your loved one was valued or appreciated by others. My suggestions about what to say instead of “sorry for your loss” are below.
“I’m at a loss for words…”
Use “I’m at a loss for words” as a sentence stem for a specific, gentle, and simple truth for the grieving person based on your relationship with them or the deceased (or both). Examples:
- “I’m at a loss for words…Mark was such an encouraging person. He’ll be dearly missed.”
- “I’m at a loss for words…you and Mark were so important to each other. You have my deepest sympathy.”
- “I’m at a loss for words…Mark was so proud of you. Please keep that in your memories.”
- “I’m at a loss for words…I’ve heard such wonderful things about Mark.”
“This is such a difficult loss…”
Using this phrase as a sentence stem allows you to customize your acknowledgment of the loss based on your relationship with the parties involved. Examples:
- “This is such a difficult time…Pat loved her quiet talks with you. Please accept my condolences.
- “This is such a difficult time…Pat was so fond of sharing her recipes with you…please let me make her meatloaf recipe, and love to drop it by for you in the coming weeks.
- “This is such a difficult time…Pat had such a talent for bringing groups together. We’ll all miss that.”
- “This is such a difficult time…Pat sounds like a wonderful person who’ll be dearly missed.”
PR Manager, My Speech Class
“I do not know how you’re feeling at the moment, but I’m here to let you know that I care.”
Losing a loved one can be a very painful experience, and there are no words to describe how it really feels. The words ‘Sorry for your loss’ have been the go-to words to say during condolence visits since time immemorial, but there are other ways to sympathize with the bereaved.
When paying your respect to the family of a loved one during a condolence visit, instead of saying “Sorry for your loss,” sympathize with them by saying either of these heartfelt phrases:
- “May the good memories of (the deceased) comfort you at this time.”
- “(The deceased) will be greatly missed by all, and we’ll continue to do (the deceased) good works.”
- “If you need a shoulder to cry on, I am here for you.”
- “Nobody can take the place of (the deceased) in our hearts, but I’m here to tell you that I care.”
- “Your loss is my loss, and I will be here for you as long as you need me to.”
- “My favorite fun memory of (the deceased) was when we… (The deceased) memory lives on in our hearts.”
- “I do not know how you’re feeling at the moment, but I’m here to let you know that I care.”
- “(The deceased) was a kind woman to everyone; her kindness will never be forgotten.”
- “I am blessed to have met (the deceased) in my life. Her legacy lives on. Take heart and be strong.”
- “May you find the strength to bear your loss during this period.”
Allow yourself to feel the outpour of emotions at that moment, and if words fail you, that’s okay; your presence matters more than you think.
Jacqueline Crocker, LCSW
Co-Founder, One Step at a Time Therapy Center
“I understand the pain you are in.”
Grief is the mixture of emotions people feel when they have lost something or someone. For those of you who have yet to experience loss, it is hard to understand and have empathy for those going through it.
We tend to think of loss as the death of a loved one. However, a loss can also be classified as moving, going through a divorce or separation, and even the loss of an idea or a dream, such as not getting into the college you want or dealing with a failing business.
When thinking about loss that way, you may have realized that it is, in fact, something you have gone through before.
Everyone processes the emotions of grief in their own way. Some people may need to be alone and feel sad, while other individuals may need to be around others and may appear not to be grieving. Others might come off as angry or irrational at times; however, no matter what the situation is, you will likely want to express your condolences to someone dealing with loss.
What do we say when we encounter someone who is dealing with a loss? The “normal” phrase is “I’m sorry for your loss” or “condolences to you and your family,” but what this is really saying is “that sucks for you.” This phrase is good to use when you don’t want to engage further in the conversation.
However, if you want to show someone that your heart really goes out to them, make a comment that says, in your own words, I know what you are going through, such as:
- “I know how bad this hurts.”
- “I understand the pain you are in.”
Comments like these connect us and will allow the person grieving to feel relieved enough to open up to you so you can be of real support. Your only job then is to listen and provide a space for your loved ones to express themselves.
Communication Expert | Founder, Refreshingly Human Podcast
“How are you coping?”
I lost my dad when I was six. He was murdered in a shop robbery at gunpoint. The bullet went through his back, and he died of internal bleeding. Even at the age of six, I knew that people’s responses to death were not helping my grief.
We are trained with automatic responses for tragic events, and we don’t tend to question these norms because these situations are difficult and awkward. Till today, as a 33-year-old woman, if I mention that I lost my dad at the age of six, the first response is always a very awkward, “Oh, I’m sorry.”
Let’s think about it for a minute and deconstruct our learned responses. If we look at the word “Sorry,” it implies that something wrong was done to someone. Usually, one apologizes when they have done something wrong.
Now let’s look at the “I’m” part of it, traditionally we should be using “I” statements to express how something has affected us, for example, “I feel bad because…” When using “I” statements, we might be making something more about ourselves than it is about the person.
When we say to someone who has lost someone, ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ we are first assuming that the person was close to the deceased and needs our sympathy. We are assuming what the person needs at that time, and we are making it about us, implying that our feeling sorry is going to ease their grief.
Here are a few options of what we could be saying instead of I’m sorry or I’m sorry for your loss:
- “Is there anything I can do for you in this difficult time?”
- “I’m here if you need to talk.”
- “Is there anything that you need from me right now?”
- “Are you okay? Do you need anything?”
- “How are you coping?”
These alternatives make it all about the person who is grieving, it gives them space to tell us how they feel and what they need without us assuming these things.
Once we have mastered alternative phrases to ‘I’m sorry for your loss,’ the next step is to learn to truly listen to what the griever is telling us. It can be difficult to remove ourselves from the discomfort of death, but we do need to remember that there is a live person in front of us that needs to be seen and heard.
Once using an alternate phrase, truly listen to the persons’ response, body language, and behaviors to acknowledge what they really need in their situation.
Let’s look at the following scenarios.
Mary: How are you copying? Are you okay?
Griever: Not very well, it’s been really difficult. I’m not sure how I feel right now.
Mary: I know what you mean. When I lost Bob, I felt…
Griever smiles politely, unsure what to say, as they are still processing their own grief.
Can you identify what might be wrong with Scenario A? Mary had made it about herself again. She changed the ‘I’ statement to begin with but responded by making it about her experience.
Related: What to Say and What Not to Say to Someone Who Is Grieving
While the intention behind it is usually pure, and we think that we are helping by relating back to our experiences, in actual fact, what we are doing is shutting down the person who is confiding in us. We are putting up invisible barriers and robbing them of their opportunity to express what they are feeling right then.
Mary: How are you copying? Are you okay?
Griever: Not very well, it’s been really difficult. I’m not sure how I feel right now.
Mary: Would you like to talk about it? What do you need right now?
Griever: I think I just need to get through the day right now.
Mary: Okay, I am here for you. Let’s take it one step at a time.
In scenario B, Mary and the Griever got a little further into figuring out what the griever needed and how to support them.
When we are practically applying this in our own lives, we can start by making sure that our response is about the griever and not about ourselves, avoid ‘I’ statements when possible. We can listen to the grievers’ response and make sure to keep it about them and what they need at the moment.
Remember to be aware of body language and facial cues, not everyone will want to talk about it, and that’s okay. Just letting them know that you are there and you are listening would be a great gesture.
Owner and Artist, Full Circle Memory Beads
“That is unimaginable.”
Every single one of my clients has suffered a loss and is living with grief daily. I’ve never once said, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’ Of course, I am sorry for them, it doesn’t need to be said, and it puts them, the grieving person, in the position to thank me for my statement.
Imagine how many times that person feels the social pressure to thank someone for being sorry for them? It’s another burden placed on the backs of people who are already carrying a heavy load.
When someone shares their story with me about the loved one who died, I simply shut up and listen. This is not the time for me to interject myself. Sometimes I ask questions about their loved one (never “how did they die?” I never have and will never ask that), questions they will like to answer such as:
- “What was their favorite color?” (I am making them memorial jewelry so this question actually pertains to the conversation)
- “What did they do for a living?”
If the conversation involves the person sharing their sadness, anger, trauma, or disbelief at the death, that is when I can pipe up and say something along the lines of:
- “That is unimaginable.”
- “That must have been so horrible for you.”
- “This must be so hard for you.”
- “That really, really sucks.”
- “I can’t imagine having to endure what you are right now.”
The thing you want to do is acknowledge their grief. Don’t turn away from it; it’s not contagious. Use their loved one’s name when appropriate. Don’t offer platitudes or advice.
Never say things like:
- “You are so strong.”
- “You’ll get through this.”
- “It’s __ stage of grief.” (there’s no such thing as stages of grief, and the author who first developed the five stages recounted her suggestion years later)
This denies them their right to be messed up and demeans their loss and feelings.
Founder & Editor, Set the Record Player
“I am sorry. I can’t even begin to imagine what you are going through.”
My bond with my grandad was the closest than anyone else in my life; he was a friend and a companion before everything. For most people, drifting apart from family members as you approach your teens and twenties is natural. For the most part, I had done the same with all my family, especially after choosing to move to another country and leave them.
With my grandad, however, it was different. I never felt like we grew apart, and until his last days, we kept our daily chess games going, except they were now online rather than his bedroom with his favorite 1960s Egyptian records on repeat.
When I lost my grandad, I was swarmed with condolences, left, right and center. Lots of people knew that we were inseparable, but I never thought anyone understood it.
In his wake, I must have shaken 200 hands and received 200 hugs, but all those people were repeating only two sentences: “So sorry for your loss” or, the more common Egyptian saying, “Only God is forever.”
I despised those sentences.
The repetitions of them took away any meaning they may have carried, and I felt like no one really grieved for my grandad, or at least no one felt what I was going through – I felt so alone.
Until an old friend, one that I had lost touch with since leaving Egypt, we hadn’t talked for years, he didn’t know much about what was going on in my life or my relationship with my grandad, but his words stuck with me forever.
He clasped one hand onto mine and one on my shoulder and whispered: “I am sorry. I can’t even begin to imagine what you are going through.”
Those words shook me to the core. They were honest, true, and resonated with how I really felt, that no one can comprehend my own loss because no one understands it.
To be sorry for my loss is to know what that loss means to me, and hardly anyone can claim to know someone’s true feelings about someone else. To this day, I never say anything else when someone is grieving because I can’t pretend that I know more than what my eyes can see.
Advanced Grief Recovery Specialist, Holding On
There are no words others can say that can actually help when we are struggling with loss. But being there and willing to listen can help more than any words.
When I went through my own loss, my family and friends tried to give me words they had heard before but never seem to help. Even the offer “If you need anything, just call” isn’t enough to help a grieving heart to feel even a moment of peace.
If you feel the need to say anything to someone dealing with loss, here are two ways to approach it.
Ask about their loss and ask them to share about them
When they do share, listen. When people grieve, they need to allow their feelings to be expressed, and when we start sharing our feelings or opinions, it becomes about us and not them.
If we feel the need to offer our help, be specific
Anything does not exist. Instead of “call me if you need anything,” say what you are actually willing to do:
- “If you need someone to clean your house.”
- “If you need someone to get you groceries or go shopping for you,”
- “if you need someone to talk to, or when it seems too much, please call me.”
Author | Teacher | Lawyer-Turned Peacemaker
Never use an “I” statement
Never use an “I” statement when speaking condolence. It’s not about you; it’s about the grieving person. The other person will say “thank you” but not be moved or comforted by your “I” statement.
Instead, use a “you” statement. For example, you might say, “You are very sad and feel abandoned.”
If you have mastered this type of reflective listening, you might go deeper. “You are very sad. You feel abandoned. You are anxious and a little angry. You feel completely lost and alone.”
This way of listening, called affect labeling, is based on brain scanning studies performed by neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. His research shows why this works, and other traditional forms of active listening do not.
Your goal is to validate the intense emotional experience of the grief-stricken person to assist him or her in processing the grief.
Allen Klein, MA, CSP
Author, “Embracing Life After Loss: A Gentle Guide for Growing Through Grief“
There is nothing wrong with saying “sorry for your loss” to someone who is grieving, but more important than saying anything is to listen.
What is the grieving person saying? What needs are they expressing? Once you hear that, you can respond appropriately. If, for example:
- They are expressing how lonely they are, you can let them know you can call them once a day or once a week, if they so desire.
- If they mention how they don’t like eating alone, you can offer to take them out for a meal from time to time or on a regular basis.
- If they say that they can’t go on without their loved one, you can encourage them that they can, maybe even remind them of some other difficult time in their life that they did successfully rise about their hardship.
Most of all, your empathy, encouragement, and expression of love, in the form of your actions, are much more important than the words you say.
Author | Life Coach Certified in Health Information Management | Content Provider and Editor, e-counseling
Anyone grieving the death of a person or pet would appreciate comforting thoughts. Instead of offering trite clichés that don’t comfort anyone, speak of shared, warm memories. Mention their value to the bereaved person’s future.
Related: What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Pet
If you don’t have memories to share, ask the person to speak of important events when loving, happy, or exciting emotions came up. Mention how speaking of them made the bereaved person’s eyes or face light up.
Express happiness that they can feel comfort with the memories.
If you know of times when the bereaved person made a positive difference in the deceased’s life, talk about that reality. Praise the person for being proactive, brave, compassionate, whatever fits the circumstances. They can take pride and/or comfort in having helped the deceased and for having impressed you that way.
The entire goal of saying anything to a bereaved person is to comfort them, share their pain, and ease their loneliness. Keep talking until you know that the bereaved person feels a bit better for having spent time with you. When you part ways, mention that you look forward to getting together again.
Focus on the future, focus on warm memories, and focus on easing pain.
Supervisor and Licensed Funeral Director, Roupp Funeral Home, Inc.
Saying, “I’m sorry for your loss” can be so generic, and because of that, it doesn’t show your empathy.
Many people struggle with figuring out the right things to say when a friend or family member has lost a loved one that they think the best thing to do is to shut down, give them space, and not acknowledge what has really happened.
This is the opposite of what you truly want to do.
Instead of saying, “I’m sorry for your loss”, think of a memory that you had with the person who has passed. A happy memory, something funny they said, or even just a story you heard about them.
For example, “I was so sorry to hear of Mary’s passing. I will never forget when she said or did XYZ.” It means a lot to make it as personal as possible to remind the family and friends how much their loved one meant to you.
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