Last updated 29th March 2021
6 min read
When someone dies it’s never easy to know what to say to those left behind.
You want to acknowledge the loss and let your friend or family member know you’re thinking of them, but how do you know what to say?
There are ways show your love and support, and to ease them through the conversation – as well as a few phrases to avoid.
Ways to express sympathy and condolences
What do you say when someone has lost a loved one? Should I share my favourites memories or will that be sad to hear? Will you make them more upset? Am I being sensitive enough?
If you’re worried about finding the right words, we’ve put together a list of comforting things you could say to show your love and support.
The best things to say when someone dies
- I’m so sorry for your loss
- You are in our thoughts and prayers
- They will be so missed
- I’m very sorry to hear this tragic news
- I’m shocked and saddened by this devastating news
- I can’t imagine how you must feel right now
- If you want to talk, I’m here at any time
- I’m thinking of you in this heart-breaking time
- She/he was a wonderful person, I’m so sorry they’re gone
There are things that you can say or do that can be supportive or begin to open up the conversation. These ‘Dos’ and other words of comfort might offer some help.
DO: offer your time
“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 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. 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.
DO: Keep it focused on them
“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.
“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. They may not be ready to talk about the person who died, so this leaves the decision with them.
What to write to show you care
You don’t always need to have a phone call 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 a card when someone dies is a simple offering of sympathy, but it lets them know you’re there if they need to talk. If you need help, read our what to write in sympathy messages article.
Even if you don’t get a reply, they will appreciate the thought.
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.
If you’re really struggling, it might be helpful to know the sort of thing you should be avoiding.
What not to say
While we might not mean any harm, there are things that can be less than helpful to a grieving person. Here some phrases to avoid:
- They’re in a better place
- Stay strong
- At least they’re no longer suffering
- You’ll move on in time
These may seem like innocent phrases, but they can be quite harmful and dismiss someone’s pain.
Don’t: try to fix or speed up someone’s grief
“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.
“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.
Don’t: focus on yourself
“I know just how you feel”
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.
“Are you feeling better 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.
While we want our loved ones’ pain to ease as quickly as possible, it’s best not to assume or put a timer on other people’s emotions.
Don’t: Keep quiet
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.
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.