When a friend or relative loses a close loved one, it’s safe to assume that for them, the worst has already happened. Yet sometimes, it’s hard to know what to say when someone dies.
Anxieties can make us fear that our words of sympathy will cause offence or make things ‘worse’, but psychotherapist Annie Broadbent says it’s more hurtful to say nothing at all, when they need our care and support.
Annie, who is author of Speaking of Death (What the Bereaved Really Need) and behind Funeral Zone’s bereavement advice column Dear Annie, says we shouldn’t allow our fears to overcome us when we are searching for what to say when someone dies.
Here are 10 ways to express condolences when someone dies, start a conversation with a grieving friend, or show how much you care.
1. ‘I’m sorry to hear…’
“People often avoid saying ‘I’m sorry to hear…’ because it sounds clichéd” says Annie.
“But it’s one of the best things to start off with, because it’s true. It acknowledges what’s happened and it’s a form of empathy.”
2. Acknowledge the person’s death
“When you’re acknowledging a death, do it in a way that feels natural,” says Annie. “You could begin with something like: ‘I heard about John – how awful’.
“When you are searching for what to say when someone dies, don’t be afraid to state what a terrible thing it is to have happened.”
3. Be empathetic
Regardless of how sad you’re feeling, or your own experiences of loss, you should never assume that someone who has been bereaved feels the same, in your condolences.
“When you say: ‘I can’t imagine what it feels for you,’ you’re acknowledging that their grief is unique, not that you don’t sympathise,” says Annie.
4. Be specific
“Don’t avoid asking questions when you are conveying words of sympathy, but when you do, being specific is best,” advizes Annie.
She was inspired to write her book Speaking of Death as a guide for people supporting friends and family through bereavement, following her own mother’s death.
“It’s best to avoid saying generalized things like ‘How are you?’” she says.
“Try asking ‘How are you coping? What are your days like?’ ‘How do you feel when you wake up?’ Or, ‘Have you got enough support?’
“The tendency in many people expressing condolences is that they tend to shy away from asking from questions like that, but they can provide a way for a grieving friend to express how they feel.”
5. Talk about the person who’s died
“One of the main things people tell me is they find really hard, is how no one talks about their loved one anymore,” says Annie.
“There’s a big difference between saying: ‘God, I’m going to miss them, I feel like this…’ and instead, sharing a memory with a bereaved friend.
“Words like ‘They were so funny’, or ‘I remember this about her so clearly…’ can open up an opportunity to talk.”
6. Express your sadness
When someone dies, it can leave many people feeling shell-shocked and sad.
“It’s okay to share your own feelings of sadness, just so long as you avoid implying to the people closer to them that your feelings are the same as theirs,” says Annie.
7. Accept anger
Don’t let fear of tears or anger hold you back from expressing words of sympathy. “You have to accept anger is okay and don’t take it personally,” says Annie.
“You’ve got to get rid of your own ego in this. They are bereft and upset. So don’t try and explain or fix something that’s been taken badly. Just say sorry.”
8. Keep trying
“It’s better to make mistakes through trying words of sympathy out, than not being there for someone because you are afraid,” says Annie. “Not being there for someone will hurt them more.”
9. Keep in touch
“The more that time passes, the more important it is to be there for someone,” says Annie.
“After a funeral, the support can gradually – or suddenly – go away and the person is left feeling very isolated. That thing that was devastating to everyone for a moment, is still devastating for them, now.
“Asking things like, ‘What’s life like, now?’ and ‘How are you coping?’ is really important.”
10. Break your fear of upsetting someone
“People can back off from talking about bereavement or the person who has died, because they don’t want to ‘remind’ the person of their grief,” says Annie.
“Fear of upsetting someone is a personal fear that you have to break. The person who has been bereaved already is upset.”
11. Remember there’s no time-limit on grief
Composure and a lack of tears doesn’t mean someone’s ‘doing well’ or coping fine.
“That’s your own interpretation of someone’s emotions, and may not be how it is,” says Annie.
“Do they actually feel that they are coping? By asking, you may find they are struggling with things that you could help them with.”
12. Take risks
If you think it’s difficult to know what to say when someone dies, it can be harder still for the person who has been bereaved to express what they need.
“Telling someone ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ is much easier for someone who has been bereaved to do,” says Annie.
“It’s much harder to ask someone, ‘Please talk about it,’ even if that’s exactly what they feel they need.”
“Supporting someone who is grieving is all about being brave enough not to take it personally if someone gets upset with you and trusting they will tell you if they don’t want to talk about things.”