How to Express Condolences Without Saying Something Stupid

by Julie Rains on 23 January 2012 8 comments

Until recently, I felt awkward and unprepared when someone I knew experienced the death of a family member. My reactions were typically neither swift nor smooth. Stockpiled sympathy cards were rarely accessible when needed. Visitations and memorial services often conflicted with my schedule. Plus, I was never sure whether my presence would be comforting or annoying.

I just didn't have much firsthand experience with these types of things. Still, I tried to do the best I could, observing other friends’ actions and hoping that whatever steps I took were welcomed and encouraging, not intrusive or depressing. After receiving condolences when my mom died a year or so ago, I became better equipped to handle this task. The types of messages that I received were varied, making me realize that there is not one right way but many ways to express sympathy. (See also: 25 Ways to Communicate Better Today)

Here are ways of expressing condolences that have worked for me.

Post a Message on Facebook

Use Facebook only if the news has been shared publicly, preferably on your friend's wall. Realize that your job is to express sympathy, not announce the death or discuss details surrounding the death or the family’s reaction to the world. 

Note that some FB announcements are straightforward, like “My grandmother died yesterday.” But others are subtle, such as “I will always remember my dad from this picture.” Confirm the death by reading other wall posts or checking your local newspaper. Then offer a kind response in the same tone as your friend's announcement.

Send a Card

Buy and send a card, or write a note that expresses your sympathy. Say that you are sorry to hear about the death and, if you know you can follow through, add offers of help or support. And, while it is usually fine to share your experiences that may be similar to the one your friend is dealing with, don’t assume that you know exactly how she feels or what she is thinking right now.

The great thing about sending a card is that the recipient can reread these and feel your sympathy again at a later time. Sure, she can pull up your email from her archive, but the physical aspect of a card or note (and the extra effort you took to sign your name, address an envelope, and buy a stamp) is comforting.

Send an Email

The advantage of email is that you can respond quickly and reach those who may be traveling to be with their families and/or arranging for services. So, if you correspond with a friend or acquaintance via email on a regular basis, then this method is fine. Just say that you are sorry to hear about the death and wanted to make sure that you were able to get in touch sooner, rather than later.

Leave a Message on Legacy.com or an Online Guestbook

Express sympathy and share a memory of a positive experience with the deceased. Don’t reference the circumstances of the death; that is, avoid saying that you were “shocked” and instead state that you were “saddened” by the news.

Call

Most people do not call because they are concerned that the family is usually overwhelmed immediately following the death. Close friends may call to express sympathy and offer assistance with arrangements, meals, etc.

Visit Your Friend at Home

Paying a visit is a kind, memorable way of expressing condolences but should be reserved for those with whom you are close and have known for a while. The days immediately following a death can be busy and difficult, so pick your time carefully, calling ahead or scheduling a time via email.

If you feel conflicted about a visit, stay away or bring food as an excuse for a short visit. Tell your friend (or her family member who answers the door) that you are sorry about the death and can't stay long but you wanted to bring something that could be helpful in the next few days. Grieving families are not picky, but many may be inundated with food in a short period of time. To be extra helpful, consider these food-giving tactics: 1) bring a frozen entree with reheating instructions that can be used immediately or later in the week, 2) give a gift card to a favorite restaurant or deli that will make choosing the next meal easy, or 3) give non-perishable items that can be stored easily, such as a basket of fresh fruit or healthy snacks.

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Go to the Visitation or Funeral

If you want to express your condolences (and don’t know the deceased very well), then attend the visitation or wake. These are typically dress-up affairs and black is still appropriate. Most will have receiving lines that allow you to talk with your friend and meet the family. Introduce yourself, explain how you knew the deceased, and express your sympathy. Depending on the length of the line, share a story about the deceased that the family members may have never heard.

If you knew the deceased or are particularly close to the friend, attend the funeral in addition to the visitation (though sometimes these are combined). Your goal is to be present and show your support as there will be little time to speak with your friend during the funeral; remember to sign the guest register for a remembrance later.

Say Something When You See the Person

This technique can be problematic because you may not be able to predict how soon you will see the person and whether you will be able to speak privately to her when you do. Still, face-to-face contact is a great way to express sympathy to someone, whether she is a long-time friend or a recent acquaintance. Most people will appreciate your acknowledgement, especially if the death is fairly recent (less than a month or so ago). If more time has passed, then consider saying something like, “Hey, I should have said something before but I wanted you to know that I was sorry to hear about your grandmother.”

What will probably happen next is usually one of two things:

  1. She thanks you and then moves to another topic. She may not be ready to talk about the death, doesn’t feel like sharing her thoughts or feelings with you, or is focused on another subject.
     
  2. She shares details about the situation, the cause of death, or some circumstances leading up to the death. This talk may last about 5 or 10 minutes but is therapeutic and can help her reframe the past and the inevitable in a more positive light. Now I find myself seeking out those who have recently lost a loved one and have had bonding conversations that I never thought possible before.

You may have heard this warning before but I will mention that it is a good idea NOT to say “it was for the best,” “I’m glad your grandmother is no longer suffering,” or something like that. Your friend might say those things, but you should not. 

Send Flowers

Flowers are a great way to express condolences and are appropriate for those with whom you have a longstanding relationship. Consider sending flowers in a vase rather than a traditional stand so that they will be appropriate for any type of service.  

Make a Gift in the Person’s Name

Make a donation to a charity designated by the family, rather than send flowers. The charity should let your friend (or her family) know that a gift has been made by you in the deceased’s name. Because there can be several weeks between the death and the notification of the gift, you may also want to express sympathy in other ways to show support of your friend in the meantime.

You don't have to do all of these things to express condolences. Most people choose one.

What ways have you found appropriate to express condolences? Share them in the comments. 

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Guest's picture
Susanna

"Use Facebook only if the news has been shared publicly, preferably on your friend's wall. Realize that your job is to express sympathy, not announce the death or discuss details surrounding the death or the family’s reaction to the world. "

This is so true. My 19 year old nephew recently passed away and the news was on Facebook before the family had been notified. My niece was receiving text messages of support before a family member arrived to tell her what had happened. I think it's really important that we teach the kids in our lives that there's no prize for being the first person to post something on Facebook. It's best to err on the side of caution. If you aren't certain the death (or any other news) is common knowledge, keep quiet. Nobody should learn of the death of a loved one via Facebook or text message.

Julie Rains's picture

I am sorry to hear about your nephew. The scenario you described was not even one that I had envisioned (I was thinking along the lines of family members not ready to let people know yet, rather than hearing about a loss via Facebook) so I appreciate your mention of what could go wrong. Social media is often a source of news (for me, and my kids) but as you mention, being cautious in such a sensitive area is the kind thing to do.

Guest's picture
Paul

In my experience, people say something stupid because they either feel they have to relate something more than condolences in order for it to be meaningful (e.g., telling a "funny" story about the deceased) or by trying to empathize with those they are giving sympathy to. The second, in my experience, is far worse. By saying things like "I know exactly what you're going through" or (worse yet) "I'm sure it's difficult losing your husband/wife/best friend, my dog died last year and I was devastated." You can't know what they're going through: everyone's grief is different and personal.

What is better is to express condolences and let them know that you will be thinking or praying for them and then follow up later. Following up weeks, months, or years later ("I've been thinking about Bob and I hope you're doing ok with his loss. Is there anything I can do?") tells the bereaved that you really care and are truly sympathetic to their loss. It will likely result in an awkward conversation but, for many, a healing one. Forgetting about it (or worse, pretending that everything is ok now) communicates that you never cared in the first place. Remembering and giving support is a way that shows deep respect and true care for both the deceased and his survivors.

Julie Rains's picture

Thanks Paul for your words of wisdom. I agree that brevity is the key to not saying something stupid. Following up later is helpful, especially if someone is a close friend or you have become closer since then. A few people have done that with me, though I know that others would be willing to listen if I needed to talk more.

Guest's picture

Death is never an easy subject. Many times, just your presence is enough. Don't forget that grieving is a cycle and lasts a lifetime. Make a point to set a reminder to contact them again throughout the first year and especially on the 1 year anniversary of the death. Weep with those who weep...

Guest's picture
Tina S

When my 15 year old daughter was killed in a car accident a woman who came to the visitation said, "Well, at least you won't have to worry about her drinking, taking drugs, or having sex now." I replied, "I'm really sorry she's going to miss that sex thing." The woman thought I was being funny but I really meant it! I got the "I know how you feel because I lost my dog" comment, too. I especially appreciated the cards. I looked at them for a long time after. And sharing a story that the family isn't familiar with was also comforting to me. A simple "I'm sorry" or "There are no words" are really the best if you can't think of anything else to say. Thanks for posting this information. I hope people who read it remember the advice!

Julie Rains's picture

I am sorry about your daughter. Glad to know that the cards and stories were comforting to you.

Guest's picture
Nik

I'm at that age where my parents' generation is passing away one by one. Pretty much everyone I know has suffered the loss of a loved one at some point. I've learned that it's hugely import to give your condolences to the surviving family or friend. Just acknowledging their loss is important, even if the words aren't quite right. The worst thing you can do is to remain quiet and uninvolved. It's at a time of loss that they need to know that you're there for them. Just a simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way to comfort them.