What NOT to Say When Expressing Sympathy (And What to Say Instead)

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I know I always feel awkward and at a loss for words when I am at a funeral or simply talking with someone who has experienced a loss. It can be hard to know just what to say when offering condolences! Feeling confident about how to comfort people who are grieving is a wonderful way of giving at the holiday time–an especially sensitive time of year for anyone dealing with loss and grief. And with all the horrific shootings and disasters occurring in the world, it seems we come across someone almost daily who is dealing with a painful situation. So I hope this list will help you express sympathy with confidence and grace.

What NOT to Say to a Grieving Person

Knowing the emotional stakes are high when speaking to someone who has just experienced a loss, many people are terrified of saying the wrong thing, so much that they may choose to say nothing at all. It’s tempting to try to help a bereaved person find an upside to their loss, but, as you may understand if you’ve experienced loss yourself, it’s incredibly difficult to see beyond the grief until someone is ready. And it’s OK to take time to live in grief. As attempts to bring a person out of their grief may backfire, do your best to avoid these phrases:

  • How are you holding up? Assume the answer to this is always “terribly.” While this question comes from a good place of concern for the grieving person, its casualness may force them to “put on a happy face.”
  • I understand how you’re feeling. Even if you’ve experienced loss yourself, someone else’s experience of grief may be entirely different. To avoid sounding presumptuous, try, “Please know I’m here for you if you want to talk about your feelings.”
  • At least the death was quick so there wasn’t any pain OR At least you had a chance to say goodbye. No matter how it happens, death is always difficult. It does not lessen the loss to compare one scenario to another.
  • Your loved one is in a better place. Although this can be comforting if the bereaved and their lost loved one both believed in the afterlife, it can be equally offensive if they didn’t. Be sure of everyone’s beliefs before going this route.
  • I don’t know what I would do if I lost my loved one. While this may be true, it’s unlikely to make a grieving person feel better, and may make them feel more isolated or hopeless in their loss (“I don’t know what I’m going to do, either.”).
  • Time heals all wounds OR Now you can start moving on with your life. You can’t fix this situation. And while the future may indeed be a brighter place, it’s important to allow a bereaved person the time and space to experience the full force of their feelings for as long as they need to feel them. This is true even when death may seem like a relief, such as after a long or painful illness. Never pressure someone to move on from their grief.

What to Say Instead to Express Sympathy

We can all agree that when we express sympathy, we want to share that we care about the grieving person and are available as a source of support. As such, it’s important to speak from a place of love and compassion, and to honestly acknowledge the situation. These phrases will help convey those feelings:

  • I’m sorry for your loss. This tried-and-true expression of sympathy is a good one in its power and simplicity. It lets someone know you care without needing to say more.
  • This must be so hard for you. A grieving person can be comforted by a simple acknowledgement of their pain and sadness, so they feel less isolated and alone in their feelings.
  • I’m keeping you in my thoughts. As above, knowing someone is in their corner who is aware of their emotional difficulty can help a grieving person feel less isolated.
  • I love you, and I’m here for you. If you have a close relationship, a simple reminder of your love and support can be powerful during a time of grief.
  • I will miss him/her OR He/She was a wonderful person OR I remember a time… If you knew the lost loved one, sharing positive thoughts and memories can provide comfort in grief.
  • When you’re ready, I’d love to learn more about your loved one. If you didn’t know the lost loved one, offering to listen to the bereaved can make them feel cared for and can relieve pressure from any immediate interactions. Letting a grieving person know you’ll be there in the future can also be a comfort in this difficult time.

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