What To Say When Someone Dies

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How To Express Condolences: What To Say When Someone Dies

Knowing how to express your condolences and comfort someone in mourning is rarely easy. Here's help.

For something as common and universal as death, it’s quite amazing how often most of us struggle with not knowing what to say to someone when someone dies.

I’ve been on the giving and the receiving ends of this challenge.

While saying, “I’m sorry for your loss” is perhaps the most common way people express their condolences, I found it really bothered me to hear this when my husband died (or, as we said, when “his soul flew to the Kingdom of God”).

I felt as though I was being told I'd lost track of him somehow. And in those first few months, I felt like his soul was hanging out quite close to me, so while I missed his physical presence, I didn’t feel as though he was "lost".

When I think back on the sympathy messages I received, what I truly appreciated when both my late husband and my mother passed away was hearing fun and interesting stories about them from others who loved them.

RELATED: 25 Encouraging Quotes To Share With Someone Who Is Grieving The Loss Of A Loved One

I've learned that during funerals and memorials, we often realized how much we didn’t know about the person who had died, even when they were (and are) someone close to us.

And Facebook and Instagram became a great way to see photos with my loved one in them that others valued deeply, and seeing them was a great source of comfort.

If you're at a loss for what to say when someone dies, here are 5 simple guidelines to follow when you express condolences.

1. Don't make assumptions

Don’t assume that you know the quality of the relationship between the person you want to console and the person who passed.

If you're engaged in conversation with the person you want to comfort, you can ask questions that will give you a clue, such as, “What will you miss the most about (the person’s name)?”

This helps you avoid accidentally walking into an awkward situation, such as the person being really glad (or at least, not particularly sad) that their relative is no longer around.

2. Ask about a favorite memory

Generally, most people will be open to you asking what their favorite memory is about the person.

Sometimes they appreciate the opportunity to share something from their last moments with the person or about a recent visit they had.

RELATED: 11 Thoughts Every Single Person Has During The Stages Of Grief

3. Listen rather than talk

Refrain from telling all your own stories about people who have passed and about your own grief process and timing unless you are asked to do so.

Each person’s experience is unique and needs to be honored. Let them know you are open to listening whenever they need to talk.

4. Offer to help with something practical

Ask if there is anything you can do to help with the arrangements and if you should work with another person on it instead of overwhelming your friend.

5. Be gentle

Be compassionate, kind, and helpful.

RELATED: 5 Rude Things You Should Never Say To Someone Who Is Grieving (And What To Say Instead)

Important note: An especially sensitive topic that often comes up when someone passes is life after death. If you don’t already know the person’s beliefs, try to find out if they would or would not find it comforting to hear that their loved one’s soul has gone on to a better place. If they don’t believe in the hereafter, it's better to focus on simply saying something positive about the person’s life here on earth.

Sometimes what we say is really about allowing our actions to speak for us.

What I've personally found especially gratifying has been hearing and seeing what others have done in honor of those who passed.

I believe what we do here in their name has a beneficial effect on their soul in the next life. Planting trees and flowers, dedicating books, making charitable donations, helping out with a worthwhile cause, and more have been words in action for me and others who have recognized the people who have passed.

These acts of kindness help the love grown here on Earth by the people who've departed remain present and thriving long after they've physically left us.

RELATED: 8 Ways To Console A Grieving Friend (That Will Actually Help)

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Susanne M. Alexander is a Relationship and Marriage Educator and Coach, who has authored and co-authored over 20 books and couples' discussion guides.