What to say when someone dies
Supporting someone who has lost a loved one is often not an easy task. Whether the deceased person is close to you or close to someone you care about, it can be challenging to find the right words to convey how you feel and offer comfort to those grieving. This article will provide tips to help you find the right words to say when someone dies.
What to say to someone who is grieving or going to a funeral of a loved one
When trying to find the right things to say to someone who is grieving, it can be difficult to know where to start. Below are some topics and things to consider when choosing your words. These can be used with someone who has recently had a death in the family, whose close friend has died. It is also appropriate to use the words of comfort to someone who is going to a funeral.
Saying something is better than saying nothing
Some people may be worried that they will say the wrong thing, so they choose not to say anything at all. Although those intentions are good, it can make the grieving process lonelier. A simple call, text, email, or even a post on social media can mean a lot to the grieving person.
In most cases, conveying personal messages about the deceased person is appreciated. However, if you did not know the deceased person well or find yourself at a loss for words, here are examples of general things you can say that will be supportive:
- I am sorry for your loss. (Not "sorry for your lost")
- My condolences to you and your family.
- We love you and are thinking of you during this difficult time.
- I am sorry to hear about _____ passing. They will be greatly missed.
- I can't imagine how difficult this must be. Just know that I am deeply sorry and I'm here for you if you need anything.
- You and your family will be in our thoughts (or prayers).
- I am here to talk if you need it.
Actions can speak louder than words
Another way you can help someone through a difficult time after their loved one has died is to offer support through your actions.
Sometimes, the best comfort for a grieving person is knowing that their friends and family are thinking of them. Unfortunately, it is common for those going through a difficult time to feel like they are a burden to the people around them. This can cause some people to retreat and become distant. This can also make it difficult for them to do everyday tasks like grocery shopping and cleaning the house. Therefore, offering to help out with jobs like these can help relieve some of their stress and help them feel loved and appreciated.
Listening is as valuable as talking
An essential aspect of supporting someone is being there to listen. Comforting words can be beneficial during the grieving process, but having someone to talk to can help you feel less alone.
Losing someone important to you can be a difficult situation to navigate. It brings up a lot of emotions and feelings that can be isolating. Having someone there who is grieving the loss or who can relate to the loss can help you feel less alone. Additionally, even if those listening cannot relate, getting feelings off your chest in a non-judgemental space can be very therapeutic and integral to the grieving process. Therefore, when trying to find the right words to say to someone, even just saying "I am here to listen" can be incredibly helpful.
There's comfort in reminiscing
Whether you were close to the deceased or only had met them a handful of times, sharing your experience and memories with those grieving can be extremely comforting to the bereaved person.
Some people are hesitant to reminisce because it may not seem appropriate given the circumstances. Additionally, they may not want to make family and friends more upset. However, if done right, it can be quite helpful.
When reminiscing, it is vital to keep things more upbeat. Talk about a funny thing they used to say, a fun hobby you two shared, a memorable party, the day you first met, a valuable lesson they taught you, and so on. Sharing memories can often provide some light to an otherwise dark time. It will also create a sense of relatedness.
Support shouldn't end after the funeral
It is also valuable to continue to stay in touch after the initial communication and expression of condolences. Grieving is often a long, drawn-out process; it does not end at the funeral, nor should the support from friends and family. In addition to being there with them through the first hurdle, it is essential to be there weeks, months, and years down the line. It is a good idea to check in with grieving family and friends periodically and on holidays and anniversaries as these are times can be very difficult especially in the first year after the death where the loss can be most apparent.
What not to say when someone dies
When it comes to offering comforting words to those grieving, knowing what not to say is as important as knowing what to say. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts, certain things are said that may do more harm than good. Below are some things to consider avoiding when choosing your words.
Avoid cliches and justifications
One of the most recognized aspects of death is that it is inevitable. Although some of us may find comfort and see a loss as part of a bigger "plan," it can sometimes come across as insensitive to those with different beliefs than you. Therefore, attributing or justifying a death to a more significant cause can do more harm than good.
Examples of phrases to avoid on this topic include:
- Everything happens for a reason.
- Death is part of God's plan.
- At least they aren't suffering anymore.
- They are in a better place now.
- God will not give us more than we can handle.
- The most brutal losses are given to the strongest people.
- Things will get better with time.
- You will find someone/something to fill the void one day.
It is important to note that many of the phrases above may be used by those grieving. Additionally, you may find comfort in these sentiments during your own grieving process. That is fine. However, it is best to avoid saying these things to others.
You will also want to be sensitive to the religious beliefs of the grieving person. Making religious statements to a non-religious person during the grieving process can be grating on them. If you are not religious and the grieving person is, you do not need to make religious statements as well as that would be inauthentic, but you can be supportive of what they say in a neutral manner. A good tactic here is to listen to what they have to say and encourage them to express themselves. Look for ways to align your own beliefs with what they say. Find commonalities where possible. Simply listen without comment if not.
Avoid making it about you
Many of us have experienced a loss in our lives. However, no two losses are the same, and people grieve differently. Relationships are complex, and so is the grieving process. Therefore, it is best to avoid phrases that focus inward.
For example, you should avoid saying things like "I know how you feel" or "I have been there before." Even if you have lost someone of similar significance to someone else (e.g., spouse), you will never be able to understand how the other person feels entirely. Additionally, not all losses are equal. For example, the loss of a pet is quite different from grieving the loss of a child. Equating the two can come across as insensitive instead of comforting.
In most cases, being there to listen, support, and help is often more valuable than trying to relate to another person's grief. However, something you can do in a situation like this is offering a support system for those going through similar losses. For example, if you have lost a spouse, suggesting a widow support group can benefit someone going through the same thing.
Don't tell someone how to feel or act
Everyone reacts to loss differently. Some cry, some are angry, some feel numb, some feel guilt, while others can't stop crying. Grief stirs up many emotions in certain people, and these emotions are expressed in many ways. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Therefore, it is essential not to control how someone else feels or acts when someone dies.
It is crucial to feel and express your feelings and emotions when you are grieving. Saying things like "don't cry" or "be strong for _____" or "it's time to move on" can do more harm than good. Although these phrases often have good intentions behind them, they can make someone feel pressure or shame for feeling or acting a certain way. Alternatively, commenting on how someone is not crying or is acting more upbeat can make them feel guilty or irrational.
In general, it is best to avoid phrases that tell people how to feel or act. Instead, you can remind the person that this is a safe space to feel their emotions. For example, if you see someone trying to hold back tears, let them know that it is okay to cry. If you see someone making jokes, laugh along with them. Try your best to let them know that you will support them without judgment or ridicule.
What to say at a funeral
Much of the advice given above can be said when you hear the news of the death, as well while attending the funeral or memorial.
When attending a funeral or memorial, approach the family member or friend and share your condolences using one of the suggested phrases above. Explain your relationship to the deceased, how you knew them, or what interactions you had with them over the years. You can also share a memory about a particularly happy, funny or inspiring interaction, if applicable.
If you are asked to say a few words in some instances, such as giving a eulogy, there is more to think and consider when choosing your words.
We have an article discussing the writing of a eulogy in more detail. However, here are some general things to include:
- Summary of their life and character
- The impact the deceased had on your life and others
- Stories and memories
- Connections with family and friends
- Career and achievements
- Interests and hobbies
When writing a eulogy, the deceased and the audience are two of the most important things to consider. In general, it is a good idea to switch between a sentimental or serious tone and an upbeat or lively tone. However, this can vary depending on the type of person the deceased was and how they died. For example, if the individual was a jokester, the eulogy can reflect that by being more lighthearted. On the other hand, it may be best to minimize jokes if they were more serious.
Whether delivering a eulogy or trying to support a friend through a loss, the most integral thing dictating your words should be your intentions. Those grieving will appreciate your effort and support if your intentions are good.