Last updated 5th December 2019
6 min read
How to avoid the wrong words at the worst time
When someone dies it’s never easy to know what to say to those left behind.
You want to let your friend or family member know you’re thinking of them, but how do you know what to say?
But there are a handful of helpful phrases to ease them through the conversation – as well as a few words you should avoid.
Ways to express sympathy and condolences
What do you say when someone dies? Will you make them more upset? Am I being sensitive enough?
If you’re worried about any of these questions, we’ve put together a list of comforting things you could say.
“I’m here for you”
Your friend or family member might not want, or even need, your help initially, but you can be sure they’ll appreciate your time a little later on.
Just knowing there’s a supportive face to open up to can offer great comfort, while giving the person space and letting them mourn at their own pace.
“I’m around most evenings if you’d like a chat”
Let people know when you’re free for a chat. It’s important that they know you’re here for them. But be realistic.
If you have plans let them know when, so they don’t try to call and can’t get hold of you. They’ll appreciate any time you can spare to help them through the difficult time.
“Is there anything I can help you with?”
It might be a small gesture, but practical support is just as meaningful as emotional support.
After a death, there are many things that need to be dealt with, and helping with everyday tasks can make the difference.
Even if it’s just offering to make a meal or helping with the housework.
If you’re someone who struggles to find the right words, this can be your way of helping.
They may say no, but there’s always something you can do to help, so, offer, and keep offering.
“How are you doing?”
Asking open questions gives the bereaved a chance to open up and talk about how they’re really feeling.
Offer a supportive ear and listen to what they have to say.
You can’t heal them, but you can give them a release. So, make sure to always ask, and take the time to listen.
“I don’t know what to say”
Sometimes, there are no ‘right’ words and that’s fine. But it’s important to keep talking – about anything.
This way you’re keeping lines of communication open. It shows you’re there and you care, which is what they need most.
What to write to show you care
You don’t always need to have a chat on the phone to let someone know you’re thinking of them.
If you’re not able to speak, instead send a sympathy card or letter, an email, or a quick text.
Sending messages when someone dies is a simple offering of sympathy, but it lets them know you’re there if they need to talk.
Even if you don’t get a reply, they will appreciate the thought.
Emotion and sensitivity aren’t always easy to show in a letter or text, especially if finding the right words doesn’t come naturally to you.
Consider choosing a short, impactful message that allows you to offer further sympathy personally or over the phone.
What else to consider when talking to someone who is grieving
In expressing sympathy, you’re offering compassion and concern for the grieving person, so make their feelings your main priority.
Communication and care should be your most important considerations, but don’t push; the bereaved will heal at their own pace and in their own time.
What not to say
Sometimes, you can find it uncomfortable knowing what to say to a grieving person.
If you’re really struggling, it might be helpful to know the sort of thing you should at least be avoiding:
“There is a reason for everything”
When consoling a grieving friend, don’t feel as though it’s your job to justify or rationalise the death for them. Simply be there and listen.
Chances are, they’ve tried to consider and reason already. Trying to justify offers little comfort, especially if the death was unexpected.
“I know just how you feel”
It’s not a competition. Even if you have lost someone yourself, and you want to show you understand their feelings, it won’t offer any comfort to someone who’s grieving.
We all cope with loss differently, and you can never fully understand how someone else is feeling, so it’s best to avoid comparing the situations.
“At least they lived a long life”
No matter the age of the deceased, the death of a family member or friend is unimaginably painful.
An older person has been a part of their partner’s, children’s, and sometimes even grandchildren’s lives for decades, so losing someone so familiar is heart-shattering, whether they enjoyed a long life or not.
“Are you over it yet?”
These simple words will hurt your friend more than you think.
It may take people months or years to grieve and for some people it will never feel better.
It’s best not to assume or put a timer on other people’s emotions.
The loneliest time for the bereaved may be the weeks after the death, when reality sinks in, so be there for them.
It’s as simple as lending an ear or offering to chat, even if you think they should be over the sadness.
Nothing at all
Sometimes keeping quiet can be even worse than saying the wrong thing.
It’s hard to know what to say but if you don’t say anything at all, it can feel to the bereaved as though they’re being ignored when they need you most.
Consider what you’re saying to someone, and at the very least let them know you’re there to talk.
How you can help
When someone dies, there are ways you can help them heal.
It can be helpful to acknowledge the death and express your own sadness, so that they know they have someone to talk to.
Keep in touch and don’t be afraid of upsetting the person.
They’re upset and perhaps planning for a funeral anyway, so you’re not likely to worsen their mood.
In fact, you’ll likely raise their spirits if they know they’re not alone.
Death and grief are never easy to talk about, and often people are unsure what to do.
It’s a difficult subject and people handle it differently, so you might be more comfortable discussing loss anonymously with someone who knows just the right things to say.
The Cruse charity offers a wide range of support, with a free helpline, whether you’re the bereaved or trying to help a friend through a tough period.
Similarly, Dying Matters have plenty of free resources available to help you talk more openly about death and bereavement.