Offering Sympathy When Someone Dies--Do's and Don'ts

Three times in the past year, I’ve had the sad occasion to have a friend lose a spouse through death: car accident, heart attack, and cancer. As I attended the visitation and memorial service, I couldn’t help but notice how many people seemed at a loss about what to say to their friend or coworker to bring comfort.

Of course, just your presence shows concern, respect, and caring. Certainly a friend or coworker appreciates a warm hug or any act of kindness during such a difficult time.

But when standing face to face in a receiving line or in a crowded room before or after the memorial service, you definitely want to say something meaningful. Here’s help….

How to Express Sympathy: What to Say to a Friend or Coworker After a Loved One Dies

State Your Feelings About the Situation

By expressing your feelings, you are suggesting to your friend or coworker that it’s okay to share theirs. They need to talk about their grief to begin the process of working through the sorrow. Your stating your emotions about the situations allows them to do the same.

“I am so sorry to hear of your dad’s death.” “We were so shocked to learn about your brother’s terrible accident.” “This makes me so sad for you.” “I know that you’ve been expecting this for some time since the cancer diagnosis, but I’m sure it’s still so very hard to have to let go after all the ups-and-downs, the hopes and disappointments of so many clinical trials she participated in.”

Do, however, avoid going into great detail about the exact nature of the death, that is, discussion of a bad accident or medical treatments. You never want to make the friend or coworker “re-live” the situation.

If you’re in a public place with other people nearby, however, take care not to dwell on sad thoughts. You don’t want your comments to make your colleague or friend lose their composure.

Honor the Loved One by Recalling a Positive Memory

As part of the grieving process, loved ones need to talk about the person who has died. They want to know others remember them fondly. You can help in their healing process by offering memories of their loved one as a way to honor them. So mention good times you’ve had together, comment on an admirable trait, or recall a kind gesture from the past.

The more difficult situation is offering a comment about someone you’ve never met personally. When that’s the case, you can always share secondhand observations: To a coworker, you might say something like this: “I’ve heard you say so many times how supportive your dad always was when you told him you wanted to move across the country for a promotion—even though that meant he wouldn’t see you as often.” Or: “Your sister must have been such a generous person to have spent so much time sponsoring the youth camps I’ve heard you talk about.”

Comment on How the Friend or Coworker Loved, Served, Showed Honor to the Deceased

Often the person feels disappointed that they could not have prevented the death. Frequently, they even feel guilt over the death—no matter how illogical. Even when that’s not the case, it’s generally a good idea to share any observations you have about how well they loved, served, or honored their loved one.

Examples: “I know it must give you a great deal of satisfaction to remember how often you spent your weekends with your mother these last two years when she needed you the most during her treatments.” Or: “I’ve heard you say that you rarely ever missed Steve’s football games—not when he played through high school or college—nor afterward when he started coaching. That’s SOME commitment! I know he must have loved having you in his cheering section all those years!”

Offer to Help in Some Specific Way — If Your Offer Is Sincere

If you are willing to bring food, babysit, drive family members to or from the airport, run errands, or whatever, make the offer specific. Avoid vague offers such as, “If there’s anything I can do to help, let me know.” Such vague gestures sound insincere.

When your friends or coworkers face difficult times of loss, make sure you know exactly how to communicate your concern and care. Saying nothing at all only adds to their emptiness and sorrow.

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