When people you know lose loved ones, through whatever means, it can be difficult to know just what to say.
Phrases like “I’m sorry for your loss” are quite common. They express your feelings, while at the same time not being overly sentimental.
Being so common, however, dilutes its meaning.
In situations like these, it’s helpful to understand how grief works. For instance, according to the WebMD special report, “Grief: Beyond the 5 Stages,” the three most common feelings among those who have suffered the loss of a loved one are sadness (84%), depression (41%), and anger (29%).
With that in mind, here are some more effective and meaningful ways to say “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Right up there with “I’m sorry for your loss,” another common phrase is “Let me know if you need anything.”
That places the burden of coming up with the action on the person that’s grieving. And that’s not fair to them. Those that have lost a family member or loved one are often in paralyzing anguish or shock. They are emotionally overwhelmed, and don’t have the mental bandwidth to delegate anything.
In fact, 63% of respondents in the study mentioned above said they felt fatigued after the death of a loved one. So even though your offer is in earnest, they won’t take you up on your offer.
Instead, think about what the person might actually need, and offer that. Everyone has to eat, so offer to make a meal for them, or help with cleanup. If you work with them, try saying “I’ll write that management report for you, so you can take it easier.”
Other options are to provide assistance with household chores. Do some laundry for them. Provide childcare. Take their kids to the park so they can get some rest.
As you use this alternative method, it’s important to not be intrusive or pushy. Do not insist on helping if they say no. Rather, recognize their boundaries and treat them with grace.
As we move through grief, it’s easy to think we’re all alone in the experience.
Every person’s coping mechanisms for loss are unique to them. This leads to a different grief experience for everyone. At the same time, let the mourner know they’re not alone. Tell them you’re there to support them.
This is a simple thing to say, yet it can also be very impactful.
Let your sense of what “I’m here for you” means be tailored by the situation. It might mean you are physically present with a hug or simply holding their hand. It can also mean just sitting together in silence, holding space for them as they grieve.
Being there for someone experiencing grief can also take place from a distance, such as having a conversation, if they’re ready to do so.
Ultimately, you’re saying that you know this is a difficult time for them, and that you’re willing and able to hold space for them.
Another trite phrase is “Your loved one would want you to be strong.”
It can be used in a well-meaning way, and be problematic at the same time. It can also suggest to the grieving party they should disregard their own pain and grief — perhaps for the comfort of people around them.
A better thing to do might be to recognize that the death of any loved one is an exhausting process. Let them know that it’s perfectly normal to not have the mental and emotional strength to “hold it together” for everyone else. Tell them that it’s okay to feel pain, anger, hurt, and heartache. This validates their experience, and that’s a very strong and positive statement.
In the same WebMD study, 53% of respondents said they had “encountered people whose sympathy seemed to have an expiration date.
And forty-two percent of the people in that group said when they were told to “move on,” or “get closure” — it made them feel worse.
Not everyone moves through the process of grief in the same way. Different individuals have their own individual schedules and timelines. Some people might “be healed” in months. Some might take years.
Everyone has the right to be understood. Reassure the bereaved, and let them know you respect them — and their own personal process of healing.
If you happened to know the person before they passed on, you might be able to share little-known anecdotes that can describe how they were meaningful to you.
As human beings, it’s important for us to honor our dead. Sharing fond memories is one way we can do this. Our stories can also give the bereaved new stories to treasure as they move through their own process of grief.
Finding the right words to express condolences in an authentic way is different for everyone. Please use the options we’ve presented as a starting point. And remember to use language which supports the mental and emotional health of those that are grieving.