If you recently lost a loved one, you may receive more than the usual number of calls, messages, and visits from people offering their condolences.
Most people will say something similar to, “I’m sorry for your loss.” You may know some of these people, and some you may not know at all.
Although a simple “thank you” will cut it in most cases, it is sometimes difficult to find a way to respond to this sentiment, especially when you have heard this phrase dozens of times in the last several days.
Here are some ways to respond when someone says, “sorry for your loss.”
Jo Tucker, MA. Ed
Grief Specialist, Jo Tucker Coaching
Use the inquiry to help build a new narrative around grief
I’ve lost both of my parents rather suddenly- my father when I was 21 and my mother just two short years ago at the age of 33. The contrast between these two morbid experience bookends is altogether a novel in and of itself, but I’m particularly struck by the difference in my experience of this exact question.
When my father died, I felt trapped by the unending list of responsibilities and an utter lack of emotional support I felt. It all felt like a song and dance to me, designed for the benefit of those outside the “great circle of loss, AKA my family.” For a week, we lined up to greet everyone, to host everyone, to stand still while people shared their memories of my father with me, seemingly not for my comfort but to fill the uncomfortable space with something, anything.
It felt like a performance of grief for the benefit of everyone but me. And there I was tap-tapping away in my finest clothes, on display for the masses.
Even worse, the “I’m sorry for your loss” was almost always accompanied by an “I’m here for you, let me know what you need.”
In fact, the discomfort became so great that for years after the fact, when someone said “I’m sorry for your loss.“, I quickly quipped, “OH MY GOODNESS DID YOU KILL HIM!?” as a small tactless way to break up the pattern and assert some control over the grief narrative. I watched in ruthless glee as they were forced to squirm under the weight of my words, trying to figure out where to turn next to get this boat back on track.
Looking back, and through the lens of yet another dramatic loss, I have compassion for the younger me who was trying to inject some kind of control over such an uncontrollable situation. For the life of her, she could not understand why she was expected to perform when she was in her greatest time of need. She was trying to shake up space so that someone would maybe look deeper and see that she was not okay.
The thing is, we’re not taught how to be around grief. In fact, we’re actively taught to turn away from it.
And in that move away, we intuitively learn that it’s shameful to grieve in a way that feels good for you. And both the grievers and those that are seeking to support those that grieve need to understand this: the way we grieve in our society isn’t serving us, and we both need to change.
We need to destigmatize grief, in whatever form it takes, and we need to re-village. Instead of “I’m sorry for your loss,” we can say, “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now- this is so much: My heart goes out to you.”
Instead of simply asking, “let me know what you need,” we need to develop new rituals that draw on older grief rituals that call for active community tending and presence over the long-term. We can say, “This is hard. I’m here for the long haul- you are not alone.”
And then we work. We set up systems, we check in meaningfully, and we put our hearts on the line with those that have lost, so they don’t have to carry the burden alone.
Today, when I speak my family history and of the loss of my parents, when people stop and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss,” I don’t close off, make jokes, or distance myself. I use the inquiry to help build a new narrative around grief that serves us all. I open my heart up, and I teach people what was supportive for me, how people came through, and I talk openly about how I still tend to my grief daily. Hopefully, it’s making a difference.
Speaker | Trainer | Spokesperson | Body Language Expert
Listen to the voice and watch the body language of the person who makes the statement
One of the many lessons of loss is that you, the grieving person, become responsible for helping those around you not feel bad as they interact with you. Standing in your pain, you are often in situations where you need to lift the burden of your sorrow off those who are awkward in dealing with it.
So, for example, when someone tries to comfort you with the comment, “I am sorry for your loss.” Which may seem to you to be a rote statement, you are left with the choice of giving a pat automated response or going deeper. It’s always your choice.
As a body language expert, I share insights into grief with those who deal with the grieving, (funeral directors, social workers, therapists school counselors, law enforcement, ministers, and others).
I suggest that you listen to the voice and watch the body language of the person who makes the “Sorry for your loss” statement to see and hear if they may be willing to go deep with you for a moment. If they are staying pulled back and reticent and speaking with a flat automatic tone, just give them a warm, “Thank You.” And let them go. They are saying the pain is too much for them, but they are kind enough to reach out as far as they can go to comfort you.
Related: The 12 Best Books on Body Language
If they are really making eye contact, leaning in, fully present, and have the paralanguage of truth as they say, “I am sorry for your loss.” if you can give them your truth. The funny thing is when you are laid bare in grief, you can read nonverbal cues acutely. You know. If they are open and willing, you can share your truth.
You can share how the loss is affecting you, “I have lost my partner and my best friend, and it hurts so much.”
You can thank them deeply, “Thank you for reaching out to me and standing in my grief with me for a moment.” “My pain is so big, thank you for being in sorrow with me.”
You can share memories of the person you lost that the person who said sorry also shares so you can grieve in the moment together, “I remember how you and Roy loved to sing in the car together when we went to the beach. I will miss hearing his voice joining with yours.”
When I was 29, the year I watched my best friend die and suffered the loss of nine other friends dying. I learned a lot about grief and the responsibility of dealing with people who had no experience with it being incredibly uncomfortable and awkward about it.
Health Psychologist | Certified Bereavement Facilitator | Founder of PCOS Wellness | Author, “Moving Through Grief: Proven Techniques for Finding Your Way After Any Loss“
Graciously accept whatever they’re able to offer
As much as you can, be aware that when people say nothing, or offer a platitude, it’s because they’re uncomfortable with grief. They care, but they don’t know how to express it very well. Graciously accept whatever they’re able to offer. Know that whatever limited sentiment you receive, there’s probably much more love and feeling behind it.
Everyone is overwhelmed with grief right now, whether it’s related to the illness or death of a loved one or the loss of a job or their business.
In a scary time, where people are feeling angry and isolated. Loss can feel even more extreme and depressing. To be a helpful friend, offer something specific that you can do for the person with the loss, like offering to do math tutoring for their kids on a Zoom session, placing a grocery or food delivery order for them, or making phone calls to notify other people about the loss.
Certified Equine Guided Learning Facilitator | Adult Educator |
Death Dying and Bereavement Certification |
Co-founder of the Equine Grief and Loss Program, Skye Blue Acres
“Thank you for thinking of me and (the person).”
The response to “I’m sorry for your loss” depends on many variables. Everyone wants a magic button for how you should respond when people are giving condolences, but grief is not a linear process. The immediate weeks after death will likely be sensitive, but grief doesn’t have an end date, so someone could feel the loss 50 years later.
For the recipient, factors to consider include:
- the relationship they have with you,
- whether they are male/female,
- their mental state before/after the death,
- how emotionally stable they are feeling at the time, etc.
For the type of loss that they are receiving condolences: it depends on the age of the person who died, what kind of loss it was (sudden or expected), their relationship with the person who died, etc
For instance, a response from a family member or a close friend is going to be different than from a coworker. No matter the situation, the most simple response, ‘thank you for thinking of me and (the person)’ is the easiest, considering the variables.
Certified Addiction and Trauma Therapist, Relationship Expert
It can be hard to find the right words or the right thing to do when someone goes through a huge loss. That is because there is nothing that you can say to make it better or easier. Words don’t do it. So when someone says, “sorry for your loss,” it is a standard answer- just like “I am fine” is a response to “How are you?” it is acceptable and neutral.
When someone says- I am sorry for your loss, you can respond:
- “Thank you so much.” Since you know, they are trying to say something, and they don’t know what else to do.
- “I appreciate it.” This is also a great response because you are letting them know, you know – they are trying.
- Ask them a question in response: “Have you ever lost anyone? How did you get through it?” You’ll find common ground to help each other.
Kriss Kevorkian, PhD, MSW
Founder and CEO, A Grieving World
As an expert in grief, death, and dying, I’d say that we often use the statement, sorry for your loss, as a default setting, so to speak because most people aren’t really comfortable getting into the weeds of grief.
When someone says this to another, I hope that people will accept it as something kind and understand that it might be all someone can offer and respond by saying, “Thank you.”
When I hear that an acquaintance has lost a loved one, I offer my condolences and say that I am sorry for his/her loss, but unless I know the person well, that’s probably going to be all I’m going to say.
When people ask how they should respond to that statement, as I said, I hope they’ll see it as a kindness and understand that grief is a subject most people don’t want to address. In fact, we might hear someone offer that statement, and in the same breath, say let’s go to lunch!
Most of us want to DO something to help the grieving person, but we don’t really want to TALK about grief.
Dr. Katy Huie Harrison
Author | Owner, Undefining Motherhood
“Thank you so much. Support from a caring community is so important right now.”
Responding to this comment is hard for a few reasons. First, the commenter has good intentions and is doing what they know to do to be helpful, so you want your response to acknowledge their effort and show that it matters.
Second, though, when experiencing grief, you have little emotional bandwidth for helping others help you. So while you want people to know you appreciate their words, it’s not your responsibility, as a griever, to make them feel better.
What I like to do is marry, helping people understand that you appreciate their words while also helping them understand how to help you in the future. My favorite response is, “Thank you so much. Support from a caring community is so important right now, and will continue to be over the coming months.”
What you’re ultimately saying with these words is not only that you appreciate the comment; you’re actually reminding your support people that, while you’re inundated with support right now, you won’t always be. You’re planting a seed in their minds and hearts to return to you later.
In a few weeks, when the outpouring of support has died down, some of these people will remember to come back and ask how you’re doing, offer to bring dinner, or simply remind you of their love and support.
Associate Professor, Online Higher Education Leadership at Maryville University
Knowing what to say when someone is grieving is emotionally charged for the sender and the receiver. We don’t handle grief well with our quick-fix, death averse, “get over it” society. We want to show our condolences and then quickly move on grateful it is not our loss. Still, we are well-intentioned, and no one wants to say the wrong thing or add pain to the bereaved, so why is “I am sorry about your loss” the wrong thing to say?
It can hurt more than help.
It is generic, over-used, empty of connection, and neutralized of emotion. That is especially true with social media. One woman I interviewed for my research said, “I quit reading my Facebook posts. If I read one more ‘I am sorry about your loss’ copycat message, I knew I would scream. I didn’t lose my son; he died.”
Grief may be universal, but grief experiences are individual. Not everyone will respond to the same type of message, verbal or written. Comments need to be relevant to the person to be meaningful. If you don’t know the deceased, ask about the person.
When all words escape, simply say, “I am so sorry about the death of….” When someone dies, grievers yearn to hear their loved one’s name. Some of the most memorable comments I received after the death of my daughter were about her. “Tell me about Kate” or “I remember when Kate and I…” or a simple “I will miss Kate.”
Professor | Published Academic
When you lose a loved one, you may be inundated with condolences from others. When someone says “sorry for your loss,” just a simple “Thank you” will suffice. When someone says sorry for your loss, they are attempting to sympathize or even empathize, in the best way they know how.
“Sorry for your loss” is practically an automatic response to death as “Bless you” is to a sneeze. The origin of the phrase is irrelevant, as is the semantics of the phrase itself. What is relevant is that someone is acknowledging you are in pain; you are grieving. Accept their attempt to offer comfort in the best way they can while maintaining your composure and steering clear of criticism.
If you are still experiencing the intense psychological effects that come with death, it may be tempting to be dismissive, condescending, or sarcastic- but understand, most people mean well when they say this. At times, I will respond with “I know” or “so what?” because I have not adequately bereaved the death of my own mother. But this negative, rude approach is hurtful to the people who are trying to be helpful.
If possible, try to consider your relationship with this person before you reply. Many of these statements will come from close friends or family members, in which case, it is likely that they are truly hurt as well. This may segue into a longer or deeper conversation. Engage if you feel comfortable, but do not feel obligated to discuss anything you are uncomfortable with. Acquaintances and colleagues may follow up by trying to get a better understanding of who died, your relationship with that person, and how you currently feel. It’s an attempt to rationalize and quantify your pain. This may be triggering or frustrating, so feel free to disengage. You are the one grieving; thus, it is up to you whether or not to talk about it.
Suggested simple responses:
- Thank them. “Thank you.”
- Show appreciation. “I appreciate your kind words.”
- Say kind words to them. “You are so thoughtful.”
- Say kind words about the deceased. “Yes, she was an amazing person.”
- And, if you don’t feel like speaking, a teary-eyed head nod will get your message across.
At least be glad they didn’t say, “Sorry for your lost.”
Certified Mental Health Consultant | Relationship Expert | Founder, Treeological
“I appreciate that”
Many people follow up their comment of “I’m sorry for your loss” with some kind words or a memory of the deceased. With this in mind, expressing your appreciation shows that you validate both their words of comfort and memories. When you’re struggling with loss, and it’s hard to maintain a conversation, this is a short and sweet way to acknowledge the people around you without having to engage in a full-blown conversation.
“Your sympathy means a lot.”
When you’re experiencing grief, it can be difficult to accept words of consolation. Nevertheless, it’s important to validate the attempted words of comfort of those who offer them. Once you return to daily life, these are the people who will be there to help you through this time. Show them that you recognize their efforts by simply expressing that their sympathy is important to you.
Certified Grief Recovery Specialist | Author, “Permission to Grieve” | Podcast Host, Coming Back: Conversations on Life After Loss
“Thank you for saying that. It means a lot.”
“Thank you. I miss them a lot.”
“Thanks so much. It’s still hard but somehow getting better.”
Always start with “thank you,” so you know the person you’re speaking with understands they’ve been acknowledged for their sympathy. Avoid saying something like, “It’s okay,” “I’m alright,” or “It’s fine,” unless those things are actually true for you. It’s normal and natural for loss, not to be “okay” or “alright.”
Elizabeth Brokamp, MA, EDM, LPC
This kind of language around grief can sound distant and impersonal
While it’s polite for a person to apologize for your loss, this kind of language around grief can sound distant and impersonal. “Your loss,” after all, means the death of someone you loved and with whom you shared memories — a person with a personality, life story, and their own quirks.
If you would like to respond with something other than “thank you” or a platitude, put a name to the loss and share something special about the person who died. “Yes, I’m never going to stop missing Aunt Lena. Do you know she was an extra in a bunch of movies and was a horrible cook?”
Sharing these types of details can lead to a conversation because you have given the other person implicit permission to ask questions, to laugh at exactly how bad Lena’s cooking was, and to share in what made her special.
Founder & Executive Director, Professionals In Transition Support Group, Inc.
Simply say, “Thank You.”
Even Better: “I can’t begin to understand what this is like for you… Here’s what I can do for you right now…” Here’s how I know:
My father had a massive heart attack in the parking garage at Cleveland Hopkins airport and died. I was his favorite son and was the last person to see him alive before he left on his business trip.
I can’t begin to describe the life-changing devastation that I felt. My entire world had changed with one phone call from my Dad’s best friend and neighbor; (who immediately picked me up from my apartment and brought me to my parents home). The core of my life, down to the marrow in my bones, had been altered forever.
Hundreds of people attended his wake, all in total disbelief because he had just turned 50. I can remember briefly “short-circuiting” at the wake; because everywhere I looked in, the packed room was a different memory. (it was a small panic attack).
I had to get out (just to go to the bathroom). People were clawing all over me as I desperately made my way through the overcrowded room. I’d make progress, and then someone would grab my hand and start telling me about my Dad. This only stoked my flames to exit.
All I heard over and over was: “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
I remember thinking: “NO you’re not, YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT I AM GOING THROUGH!”
Over the years, I realized that saying: “I’m sorry for your loss,” is the natural response that most people say without thinking.
For many years after my Dad’s wake, I was claustrophobic; and taking an elevator was always a major challenge. Going to wakes to this day is still a challenge that I manage because providing support to the family is more important than my feelings of being cooped up in a crowded room full of people I know.
When my Mom died years later when people said, “I’m sorry” to me, I just accepted it gracefully, knowing that they were doing the best they can in a difficult situation.
Owner and Director of Community Engagement at Symonds-Madison Funeral Home
“Thank you so much for your care and concern. It really means a lot to me.”
A simple thank you and acknowledgment of their kindness are all you need. Try, “Thank you so much for your care and concern. It really means a lot to me.”
Many people struggle with what to say after a loss, and a genuine thank you goes a long way. Friends and family are sometimes worried about saying the wrong thing when all they truly want is for you to know they care.
Immediately after a loss, you may feel like you are in a brain fog. It’s OK to repeat this phrase to everyone! Don’t feel the need to confess your feelings or explain beyond what you are comfortable with.
If you are feeling up for conversation and this person knew your loved one, you can ask them for their favorite memory or story. Happy memories and new stories can be comforting in times of grief. If you don’t feel up for a deep conversation, It can be enough to just say thanks and be. Together.
Grief Coach and Owner, Living Moon Meditation
The best response is whatever you are comfortable with
It’s easy to not know how to respond when someone expresses their sympathy for your loss. I often tell my clients that the best response is whatever you are comfortable with. You are the one grieving, and most likely, the person doesn’t expect an in-depth response.
Sometimes a simple smile or nod of the head is all you are up for, and that is perfectly fine. It acknowledges that you heard the person and that you appreciate their heartfelt condolences.
If you are up to speaking or feel like you just want to say something, a simple “Thank you” is sufficient. Don’t feel like you have to go into details about the person you lost. Of course, with the best response being what you are most comfortable with, if you are good with a deeper response, then, by all means, go with that.
Life Coach and Editor at Mantelligence
It’s never easy to lose someone you love and care about. When people start coming around to offer their condolences, it can be hard to figure out just what to respond to their sympathies. Here are some of our suggestions on how to respond to condolence:
One of the most common responses is a simple “Thank you.” It simply acknowledges that you heard the speaker and appreciate his sentiments. He should not expect you to provide a lengthy reply, given your current situation.
“I appreciate that”
This is a good response when the visitor shares some kind words or a memory of the deceased. You can respond with “I appreciate that” to show that you sincerely appreciate his condolences.
“Thank you. I know he/she is in a better place now.”
If you believe in the afterlife, death may sometimes be a bittersweet deal. This is particularly true if your loved one had a battle with a long-term illness. You can show that you are thankful that he/she is at peace and no longer in pain.
Sometimes, the best response is no verbal response at all, especially when you are having a hard time saying anything. A simple nod, hug, or grip of the hand may be all that it takes to let the other person know that you appreciate his/her sympathy and presence during this difficult time.
Know that this is a difficult scenario and that you are not alone. Your friends and family continue to love and support you during this time.