When somebody dies it can be difficult to know what to say. If someone has lost their mother, father, sibling or friend, it is normal to worry that we might offend them or make things worse, but it’s more hurtful to say nothing at all.
Here are 10 ways to express condolences when someone dies, start a conversation with a grieving friend, and show how much you care.
What to say when someone dies
1. Acknowledge the person’s death
When you are searching for what to say when someone dies, don’t be afraid to state what a terrible thing it is to have happened. Do it in a way that feels natural. You could begin with something like: ‘I heard about John – how awful’.
2. Be empathetic
Regardless of how sad you’re feeling, or your own experiences of a loved one dying, you should never assume that someone who has been bereaved feels the same. Saying ‘I can’t imagine how it feels for you,’ acknowledges that their grief is unique, not that you don’t sympathise with them.
3. Be specific
Many people tend to shy away from asking questions after someone dies, but they can provide a way for a grieving person to express how they feel. However, it’s best to avoid generalisations like ‘How are you?’ Here are some questions that might be better: ‘How are you coping? What are your days like?’ ‘How do you feel when you wake up?’ ‘Have you got enough support?’
4. Talk about the person who died
One of the main things that people find difficult after someone dies is when no one talks about their loved one anymore. Sharing a memory and saying things like ‘they were so funny’, or ‘I remember this about her so clearly…’ can open up an opportunity for them to talk.
5. Express your own sadness
When someone dies it can leave many people feeling shell-shocked and sad. It’s okay to share your own feelings of sadness, but avoid implying to people closer to them that your feelings are the same.
6. Accept anger
Don’t let fear of tears or anger hold you back from expressing words of sympathy. If a person is grieving after someone dies don’t try and explain or fix something that’s been taken badly. Just say sorry.
7. Keep in touch
After a funeral support can gradually – or suddenly – disappear, but the bereaved person is still grieving for their loved one. This can leave people feeling very isolated. Asking them ‘what’s life like now?’ and ‘how are you coping?’ can be really helpful.
8. Break your fear of upsetting someone
People can back off from talking to people after someone has died, because they don’t want to ‘remind’ the person of their grief. The person who has been bereaved already is upset and, as long as you try to be empathetic and sensitive, it is better to say something rather than keep your distance.
9. Remember there’s no time-limit on grief
Composure after someone has died doesn’t necessarily mean someone’s ‘doing well’ or coping. It is important to ask them if they feel that they are coping. Asking them lets them have an opportunity to tell you about things that they might be struggling with.
10. Take risks
Sometimes it is hard for a bereaved person to say what they need after someone dies. It can be easier for them to say ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ than ‘please talk about it,’ even if that’s actually what they want. It’s better to say something and trust them to tell you if they don’t want to talk about things.
Things to avoid
- “I know just how you feel – my grandmother died recently.” Even if you have lost a loved one and experienced grief, everyone’s grief is unique to them and it is impossible to guess exactly how they are feeling. Try to avoid comparing their situation to any losses in your life, unless they ask you about your experiences.
- “Time heals all wounds.” This comment might be well-meaning, but for many people, grief never goes away. In many cases, grief can’t be healed.
- “They are in a better place now” or “God has a plan.” Even if you know that your grieving friend is a person of faith, it might be better to avoid comments that suggest their loved one was meant to die. This could make them feel that they aren’t supposed to be grieving.
- “Just let me know if you need any help.” Many bereaved people struggle to ask for help, either because they don’t want to be a burden or aren’t sure exactly what they need. Try to make offers of help specific, such as, “I can take the kids to school this week” or “I’m going grocery shopping, do you need anything?”
- “You need to move on.” Grief doesn’t have a time limit. As mentioned, some people will love and miss their loved one forever.
What should I say when someone dies unexpectedly?
If someone dies unexpectedly, especially in traumatic circumstances, such as an accident, it can be even more difficult to know what to say to their loved ones. There is nothing specific you can say to people in these circumstances, but it is important to consider that the suddenness of it might make them more vulnerable and sensitive. Practical support for the bereaved in their daily lives can be very helpful in these circumstances.
What should I say to people from a different culture when someone dies?
Many cultures, such as Islam, do have specific views on death and grief and the best thing to say can be very different from what you might expect. It can be helpful to find out about their beliefs before you talk to them. Our guide to religious funerals has some useful information on death and bereavement in different traditions.
What should I write when someone dies?
If you do not have the opportunity to speak to someone who is grieving for a loved one who has died, you can still send them a condolence message. This might be better if you are very unsure of what to say to them, because you can practice and edit your message. It also lets the bereaved person read it in their own time. Whether you speak or write to your friend or family member, it is best to start with something simple and true. Annie says that “People often avoid saying ‘I’m sorry to hear…’ because it sounds clichéd. But it’s one of the best things to start off with, because it’s true. It acknowledges what’s happened and it’s a form of empathy.”