Wanting to comfort someone who is hurting is the most natural thing in the world. But it can be hard to know what to say when someone dies. That all-too-familiar worry ⁠— what if you say the wrong thing? ⁠— can leave you frozen, unable to make a peep (good or bad).

So, what do you say when someone dies? And what are those phrases to avoid? Let’s take a look.

 

What to say to someone who is grieving: Dos and don’ts

 

DO: Say something

Don’t hold back because you’re not sure what to say. It happens a lot, and it can make this a very lonely time for those who are grieving.

So, reach out. You don’t have to drop by (in fact, this can seem a bit intrusive in the first few days) but a phone call can mean a lot. A sympathy card or email is also okay; even a text is better than silence.

Here are some things to say when someone dies:

  • I was so sorry to hear that Susan died.
  • I can’t imagine how you must be feeling.
  • We love you and we want you to know we’re thinking of you.
  • I just wanted to say that if you need to talk, I’m here for you.
  • I know how much you loved him.
  • We’re always here for you, if you need anything. Big or small.
  • I don’t know what to say, except that I’m so sorry. There are no words.
  • Your dad was such a kind and thoughtful man. He’s going to be missed so much.
  • This must be so hard for you.
  • We all loved Laura. She had a way of making people smile. We’re going to miss her.
  • I wish I had the right words for you. All I can say is that I’m here if you need someone to listen.

 

DON’T: Try to “fix” it

Yes, it’s hard to see someone you love in pain. But remember that there are no words that can fix grief. Especially not clichés!

So, remember NOT to say things like:

  • Everything happens for a reason / This is God’s plan / God never gives us more than we can cope with.
  • You will find someone else one day / you’ll have another child.
  • At least he isn’t suffering anymore (or anything else starting with “at least”. There is no bright side).

 

DO: Listen, listen, listen

This is one of the best things you can do for someone who is grieving. They will need someone to listen just as much as they need words of comfort when someone dies. So, let them talk it out. If they cry, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Give them a hug and let them say what they need to say.

 

DON’T: Make it about you

Plenty of grieving people have heard someone say “I know how you feel” and wondered, Do you? Do you really? 

It’s best to avoid using this phrase, even if you’ve lost someone yourself. No two people grieve alike. And if your dog has died recently, your grief is valid … but you definitely don’t know how a bereaved partner or parent or child feels.

 

DO: Share your memories

You might feel like it’s bad manners to mention the person who has died to their grieving family. But you’ll often find that they’re actually pleased to hear something new about them. If you have a special memory to share, share it. These are pure gold to someone who is grieving.

 

DO: Remember that actions speak louder than words

When you’re not sure what to say to someone who has lost a family member, a partner, or a friend, remember this: you don’t have to say anything much, as long as you show up for them.

A hug goes a long way. And small errands speak to how much you’re thinking of them. Drop off some meals they can pop in the oven or microwave. Do their laundry. Clean up a bit. Watch their kids for an hour or two while they get some sleep.

Don’t wait for them to ask for help, either. A lot of grieving people will attempt to struggle on without help. Or they’ll simply let everything slide, forgetting to look after themselves. Find something you can do and ask them about the best way to do it.

 

DON’T: Tell them how to feel

You might think you’re helping when you tell someone not to cry, or to “be strong”. “Tom would want you to be happy” is another well-meaning thing people often say when someone dies.

But when you’re grieving, it’s important to be able to express yourself. Crying can be a healthy part of that. They might not even be able to help it. So, it’s kinder to say things like, “That’s okay, just go ahead and cry”.

At the same time, try not to put pressure on someone to cry! Some people simply can’t cry after a death. The shock is too great, or they express their grief some other way. There’s no right or wrong way to mourn.

 

DO: Stay in touch

When someone dies, a lot of friends and relatives turn up and lend their support. After the funeral, this support tends to slowly drop away. And yet grief lasts far longer than a few weeks.

So, try to check in with your grieving friend or relative regularly. Remember that special occasions like Christmas, Easter, weddings, birthdays and anniversaries can be especially hard.

 

What to say when someone dies unexpectedly

Because of the sheer shock of it, it can be especially hard to know what to say when someone dies suddenly. But it’s okay to express that surprise. Here are some simple things to start with:

  • This is such a tragedy. I can’t imagine how you must be feeling. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.
  • I can’t believe Sam is gone. You must be devastated. I just wanted to say that I’m here for you.
  • I’m thinking of you. This is so unexpected and so sad. Lucy was the kindest, sweetest person. I’m here if you need anything.

 

A quick note on “I’m here if you need anything…”

See also “let me know if I can help at all.” These are kind words to say when someone dies. But don’t let them be your only offer of help. Rather than putting the burden on the person who is grieving to reach out to you, try to some up with something concrete and specific to offer them.

  • I’d like to cook something for you and the girls. Is it okay to drop it off Tuesday morning?
  • Now I’m here, do you have any laundry/tidying/errands I can do for you? I know you won’t have had much time lately.
  • You must be exhausted. Would you like me to sit with the kids for a bit while you take a nap?

 

For more advice on what to say when someone dies…

There are lots of guides to help you support a grieving friend here on the Beyond site.

If you struggle with finding the right words, we have advice on writing a sympathy card or a message to go with the funeral flowers. If it’s etiquette that keeps you up at night, we have tips on what to do, take and wear to a funeral. And our section on grief and bereavement here can help you understand some of what they’re going through.

Not found the guide you’re looking for? Ask the Beyond community on our funeral forum.

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