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What to say when someone dies: 10 meaningful condolences

Hands clasped in a gesture of warmth and sympathy

When somebody dies it can be difficult to know what to say to their loved one. 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 psychotherapist Annie Broadbent, author of Speaking of Death (What the Bereaved Really Need), says it’s more hurtful to say nothing at all. She was inspired to write her book as a guide for people supporting bereaved friends and family after her own mother died.

What should I say when somebody dies?

Annie says that “it’s better to make mistakes through trying words of sympathy out, than not being there for someone because you are afraid. Not being there for someone will hurt them more.” There are no definite rules for speaking to someone who is grieving after their loved one has died and the most important thing is to make an effort to be empathetic and sensitive. They might not be able to express it at the time, but this care for them can be very helpful.

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.” Here are 10 ways to express condolences when someone dies, start a conversation with a grieving friend, and show how much you care.

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’s 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.