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What to say when someone dies – words of sympathy

Hands clasped in a gesture of warmth and sympathy

Many people these days are opening up about bereavement and their personal journeys through grief. But when you’re searching for what to say when someone dies, you’ll often come up with as many examples of what not to say.

If you’re already struggling to find the right words of sympathy, this can add to anxieties about saying the ‘wrong’ thing at a time when the support of friends and family is most important.

Annie Broadbent, author of We Need to Talk About Grief and psychotherapist behind Funeral Zone’s bereavement advice column, says we shouldn’t allow our fears to prevent us expressing words of sympathy and comfort to the bereaved.

Here, she offers 12 thoughts about things to say when someone dies and what to say to someone grieving.

1. “I’m sorry to hear…”

“People often avoid saying ‘I’m sorry to hear…’ because it sounds clichéd,” says Annie. “But it’s one of the best things to start off with when someone dies, simply because it’s true. It acknowledges what’s happened and it’s a form of empathy.”

2. Acknowledge the person’s death

“When you’re acknowledging a death, do it in a way that feels natural,” says Annie.

“You could simply start with words of sympathy such as: ‘I heard about John – how awful.’ 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.”

3. Be empathetic

Regardless of how sad you’re feeling, or how you feel someone’s bereavement reflects your own experiences of loss, you should never assume that someone who has been bereaved feels the same as you, says Annie. Express sympathy with words like, “I can’t imagine what it feels for you.”

“Phrased this way,” she explains, “you’re expressing your sadness, while also acknowledging that their grief is unique.”

4. Be specific

“It can be supportive to ask questions and being specific is best,” advises Annie, who was inspired to write her book to help people with what to say to someone grieving, after the death of her own mom.

“When you are thinking about what to say when someone dies, it’s best to avoid saying general things, like, ‘How are you?’ which may get closed answers,” she says.

“Try asking ‘How are you coping? What are your days like? How do you feel when you wake up?’ or, ‘Have you got enough support?’

“The tendency in many people fearful of intruding on someone’s grief is that they shy away asking from questions like that.”

5. Talk about the person who’s died

“One of the main things people tell me they find really hard to cope with, is how no one talks about their loved one anymore,” says Annie.

“There’s a big difference between you saying, ‘God, I’m going to miss them, I feel like this…’ and a supportive gesture like sharing a memory.

“Words like, ‘They were so funny’, or, ‘I remember this about her so clearly…’ can open up an opportunity to talk.”

6. Express your sadness

When someone dies, it can leave many people feeling shell-shocked and sad.

“It’s okay to share your own feelings of sadness, just so long as you avoid implying to the people closer to them, that your feelings are the same,” says Annie.

7. Accept anger

Don’t let your own fear of someone’s tears or anger hold you back from expressing words of sympathy.

“You have to accept anger is okay and don’t take it personally,” says Annie.

“You’ve got to get rid of your own ego in this. They are already feeling bereft and upset. Don’t try and explain or fix something that’s been taken badly if someone who’s grieving snaps at you. Just say sorry.”

8. Keep trying

“It’s better to make mistakes through trying words of sympathy, than not being there for someone because you are afraid,” says Annie.

“Avoiding them will hurt them far more.”

9. Break your fear of upsetting someone

“People can back off from talking about bereavement, because they don’t want to ‘remind’ the person of their grief,” says Annie.

“But remember, when you are thinking about words of comfort for the bereaved, they already are upset. Fear of upsetting someone is a personal fear that you have to break.”

10. Remember there’s no time limit on grief

Composure and a lack of tears doesn’t mean someone’s ‘doing well.’

“That’s your interpretation of someone’s emotions,” says Annie. “Instead, consider how they might appreciate conversation or company.

“Do they feel they are coping, or maybe struggling with things you could help them with? It can be hard for people who have been bereaved to ask a favor or to take someone up on their offer of ‘if there’s anything I can do…’ so it’s important to find out what they need, when you are thinking about what to say when someone dies.”

11. Take risks

“When you are thinking about things to say when someone dies, it’s about being brave enough not to take it personally if someone gets upset with you and trusting they will tell you if they don’t want to talk about it,” says Annie.

“That’s easier for someone who has been bereaved to do, than to ask you to please, please talk about it.”

12. Keep in touch

“The later it is, the more important it is to be there for someone,” says Annie.

“After a funeral, the support can gradually – or suddenly – go away and the person is isolated.

“The person’s death that was devastating to everyone for a moment, is still devastating for them, now. Keeping in regular touch and asking things like, ‘What’s life like now?’ and ‘How are you coping?’ is really important.”