The Right Thing to Say When Someone Dies

Brad’s mother died a week ago today. Since then, many of our friends have expressed condolences in person or in a short note.

I’ve noticed that some people seem to naturally know what to say to bring comfort. Others struggle. Some resort to platitudes that do not bring comfort and sometimes bring more pain. Wouldn’t it be great if we always knew the right thing to say when someone dies?

gravestone at Arlington National Cemetery

Grief makes us feel closed off from others, the right words can help open communication.

The right thing to say is composed of five simple ideas, and two optional statements. Each idea can be expressed in a few words. Here is a step-by-step guide to knowing the right thing to say when someone dies.

A friend of ours wrote a lovely sympathy note and she agreed to let me share it here with you as an example.

Brad, I was so sorry to learn from John this morning that your mother had passed away. I’m glad that you had the opportunity to be with her and to let her feel your love before she passed. I know that your heart must be full of sorrow at this time, but you have received a great gift having your mother with you for so many years. Though she will be greatly missed, you will always have a special place in your heart for her, a place that only a mother and son can share. God bless her and keep her close and may you and your family have peace.  Big hugs to you, Gail

What a great note! In just a few sentences, Gail brought us great comfort immediately, and again each time we read it.

Here are the five steps. Your note need not follow these steps in the exact same order. As you’ll see, our friend used a slightly differ order with equal effectiveness.

1. A simple introduction that addresses your feeling of sadness that the person has died.

“I was so sorry to learn from John this morning that your mother had passed away.”

2. Express condolences.

“I know that your heart must be full of sorrow at this time,”

3. Convey how much the person meant to you through a short story or memory. If you did not know the deceased, simply express how important and special the relationship must have been.

“you have received a great gift having your mother with you for so many years. Though she will be greatly missed, you will always have a special place in your heart for her, a place that only a mother and son can share.”

4. Acknowledge the circumstances of the death.

“I’m glad that you had the opportunity to be with her and to let her feel your love before she passed.”

5. Conclude by summarizing your feelings and thoughts.

“God bless her and keep her close and may you and your family have peace. Big hugs to you.”

Two optional statements can be added before step five. Of course, only make these offers if you fully intend to carry through.

6. Offer to help the bereaved in some specific way.

7. Promise to call or to visit in a week or two, or in whatever time frame makes sense for your situation.

Before you begin, remember the purpose of your conversation, or your sympathy note, is to provide comfort to the survivors. When you can tap the feelings in your own heart with the intention of easing the pain in the other person’s heart, finding the right thing to say when someone dies is not nearly so difficult.

Life Is Honest, Open and True: When heartache strikes someone we know, we want to sound genuine but find it hard to know what to say. When we tap into what is in our hearts and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes, with a little effort the right words will come. With practice in accessing our feelings, knowing what to say becomes almost automatic.

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “The Right Thing to Say When Someone Dies

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  9. James

    I am truly searching for words to say to our friend. Under what not to say,”
    ” she’s in a better place ” is said to be thoughtless
    A nice note is shared with us and it clearly says in the note that ” she’s in a better place”
    This is always delicate , but now the guidance we were looking for is contradicting ??

    • Yes, this one is very delicate. The reason I say to stay away from it is that knowing she is in a ‘better’ place does not relieve the pain your friend feels because she is now there and not here with your friend. Saying the deceased is in a better place can then make your friend feel he (or she) is being selfish for wanting her to still be alive. It is a way of telling your friend how he should feel, instead of recognizing how he does feel. Feelings are never wrong, they just are. Think of feelings as being like the weather. The weather is never wrong, it is simply what it is. I hope this helps you.

      • James

        We agree that one should not say that someone is in a better place! Most other advice sites agree!! Then we saw a letter that was featured as a being nice to send yet it has the sentence that most agree doesn’t sound appropriate . It’s nice to find sites like this to help but in this case it sent conflicting messages . ( we looked elsewhere for confirmation)
        Thanks for Ur time

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