What to Say When Someone Dies (Dos and Don’ts)

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Few people really know what to say when someone dies.

And to be honest, most of the times there is nothing you can say or do that will magically make people feel great again.

However, you can avoid making some major mistakes.
And maybe, you can offer some good words of support.

This article will help you do just that.

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#1. I’m Sorry

As simple as that.

Some people think this is “too little”, and that they should do or say more.
And while it’s commendable of anyone to want to do and give more, they sometimes approach the situation with the wrong mindset. The mindset is that they think that they need to console someone, or cheer them up.

And don’t get me wrong: the moment to cheer our friends up might come…. But it’s not soon after their loss.
Indeed “forcing” people to feel better, trying too hard to change their states might easily feel like a violence.

What to do instead?

Hug And Say “I’m Sorry”

If you are very close, hug them as you say “I’m sorry”.

And If you are close, hug them, then release.
Then add “I’m sorry” as you keep a hand on their arm to show your support with physical body language contact.

If you are not close, a handshake will suffice.

#2. Know That I Am Here

If you are close and able to offer your support, this is a great way to add more supportive power to your “I’m sorry”.

It shows the person grieving that they are not alone and that they can count on someone.
Most of all, it also offers immediate emotional support.

Absolutely use it whenever you can and feel free to modify it with the following:

  • Know that I am here for you
  • I am here with you
  • You are not alone through this
  • I know it’s a difficult time. When all of this will be over, I’ll be there

The last one is particularly good.
The whole experience of coping with a loss and having to organize the funeral and religious ceremony is overwhelming.
The bereaved often go ahead out of sheer must, but without fully understanding what’s happening on an emotional level.

When everyone starts showing up at their doorstep, they also need to face the social jungle and keep a stiff upper lip.
At least, everyone who shows up is sorry and supportive. But after? It’s the days after that are often the toughest for the bereaved.

When you tell them you’ll be there, you show empathy and take pressure away from them. It’s not them who need to attend to you, it’s you who will be taking care of them.
It’s very touching and soothing.

#3. Know That I’m Close to You

“Know that I’m close to you” replaces ” the above “know that I’m here” when you cannot offer your help or support.

You can use this one for example to end a non-personal communication such as a text message or an email.

#4. I’m Close to You in This Moment of Pain

This is similar to the above and you will use it especially when you knew the person who died.
In one sentence, it communicates you are close to them and that you too you are feeling the pain.

It joins the two of you in this moment of sorrow, and it makes the bereaved feel less lonely.

#5. You Are in My Thoughts

This one can be used a bit more freely than three sentences above.
It doesn’t require you to be particularly close to either the person who died or the person who is mourning.

“You are in my thoughts” is also another great way to end any non-personal communication such as an email or a text message.

#6. This Sucks

This is more informal and can be used if you are on a very friendly basis with the bereaved.

If you think “this sucks” is too slang and out of place, it might because you don’t talk like that or because you don’t talk like that with the bereaved.
If that’s the case, you shouldn’t use it.

However, if you do talk informally but think it’s too “slang”, then you are focusing too much on form and you are making it too much about yourself.
Remember, if you feel the pain, communicating it with your own words and without filter is the best thing you can do both for yourself and for your friend.
There is no shame in labeling a bad situation for what it is.

#7. He Was Such a Wonderful Person

This is a common, stock expression.

However, it’s fine… As long as you believe it.

Don’t use it though if you didn’t think the deceased was indeed wonderful or if you didn’t know him well enough.
If you weren’t close and/or didn’t know the person well, it sounds like you are either using cliches or, worse, that you are being insincere.

If you knew him just from the periphery of your social circle, it’s OK to say “he always struck me as such a wonderful person” or “he always seemed such a beautiful soul”.

#8. This Must be Hard for You

Telling your friend you are aware of his feelings shows empathy.

It will move the two of you closer at an emotional level and make him feel less alone in this moment of hardship.
It also provides the bereaved the safety to act how he feels rather than faking “strength”. And he can use it as a chance to open up emotionally if he needs to (ie.: yes, it’s incredibly hard).

#9. Share a Memory

If you have a great memory that positively encapsulates who the deceased was for you, you can share it with some of the family members or you can go up at the funeral ceremony and deliver it for everyone.
You can rest assured everyone will remember that nice gesture.

However, don’t share it with the bereaved so early as that will hardly console them and might actually aggravate their pain.

Watch Out for These

While there are often no good words to cheer someone up, there are a few unhappy expressions you should avoid.

The expressions below either make the situation worse, or make you look bad.
And yes, while the focus is on the deceased, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t care anymore about our reputation.

1. Don’t Say “I’m Sorry for Your Loss”

I want to get this one out of the way ASAP.
“I’m sorry for your loss” is a perfect thing to say in a few specific cases. And the cases are:

  1. When the death was expected and/or
  2. When you didn’t know the person who died

In any other cases that “your loss” part shows a terrible lack of empathy.
If a friend of yours dies you don’t tell her wife about “her loss”. It’s your loss too.
If a child dies, you don’t tell the parents “you’re sorry for their loss”. It’s a tragedy and it should involve everyone with a heart.

2. Don’t Ask “How Are You?”

How are you can be a fair question if you’re very close or if the death is not devastating.

For example, when my grandmother died of old age it wasn’t a shocking news for anyone.
So I asked exactly that to my mother. It was perfectly befitting because I cared about how she felt and because I really wasn’t sure (was she devastated, was she sad, was she sad but overall OK?).

However, when the death is unexpected or obviously devastating and/or you’re not close enough to ask that, it’s a big mistake.

For example, would you ask your neighbor who’s just lost a child in a car crash “how are you?”.
How do you think she’s doing? And how can she even reply to that? Of course she’s devastated.

3. Do Not Smile

Even if they say something funny or mildly hilarious, it’s always best to flash out a big grin.
Or you’ll end up looking like Michelle Obama, which her smile very much out of place:

Always Avoid These

Always avoid the following, I cannot think of any situation when saying them to a person who has lost someone would be ok:

1. Never Say “Now You Can Live Your Life”

Some deaths can relieve the family of having to look after the deceased. And it’s true that they will be able to use more of their free time.

However, soon after the death is not the time to talk about the benefits of a death!
To get back to my example: sure my mother was going to be able to travel and enjoy more her own retirement. And we all knew it. But was I going to say that when my grandmother passed away?
No!
Both because it wouldn’t have felt good in any way for my mother to hear and because it’s quite disrespectful towards the deceased.

2. Avoid “I Know How You’re Feeling”

You might know how they’re feeling and you might have been in a very similar situation. But it still feels condescending and egoistical to the bereaved.
You see, they don’t care that you know how they’re feeling.

Notice that “I know how you’re feeling” might sound similar to the previous “this must be hard for you”, but it’s not. “This must be hard” is about them and paces their reality.
Plus “must be” is a statement/question which they can deny, correct or explain.

“I know how you’re feeling” instead is about you. And it’s a statement. You don’t even know how to answer to that. Actually, the only sensible answer would make them sound like complete jackasses (which is, by the way: “no you don’t”).

3. Avoid “He’s in a Better Place”

Maybe you believe that. Maybe the bereaved believes that.
Maybe it’s even true!

But still when tragedy happens it’s not the time to say it.
People miss their loved ones and don’t want them in a better place, they want them nearby.

Never broach the “he’s in a better place” topic when the wound is still fresh.

4. Avoid “You’ll be Better (Soon)”

That is true, isn’t it?

Of course they’ll be better. Maybe even soon indeed. But again, this is not the time to say it!

Mourning and grieving will take some time and that time has to be respected and honored. Being sad is part of life and it’s OK. Saying “you’ll be better” feels like you are not respecting their current feelings.

5. Never Say “If That Happened to Me…”

Then you’d be destroyed. Or you couldn’t handle it. Or maybe you want to make them a compliment about how strong they are.
DON’T!
This is about them, and saying anything about you feels like you’re trying to steal the show and make it about you.

And talking about hijacking the conversation, please don’t:

6. Never Talk About Your Concerns

On the funeral people talk.
And they talk about everything. And that’s OK.

It’s also OK to talk about different issues and help the bereaved clear his mind for a while.

But do not, ever, try to pitch, sell or “make it about you” in any way. That’s terribly insensitive and they will (righteously) resent you for it.

Here’s an example:

SUMMARY

Most people are worried about what to say when someone dies because because they:

  1. Are afraid of saying something wrong (as long as you’re sincere you’ll mostly be fine)
  2. Think they have to make the other person feel better (it’s the opposite: it’s trying to make them feel better that is insensitive)
  3. Feel bad being close to someone who’s in so much pain (pain is a part of life and they will most likely be better eventually)

Your goal when offering your condolences is simply to express sympathy, compassion and/or share the pain if you do. This article showed you how to do that well.

Also read: how to console someone.

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