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5 Things Not to Say When Someone Dies

... and 4 things to say instead.

Key points

  • It is always better to say something than to refrain from doing so, despite the fear of "saying the wrong thing."
  • it’s important to focus on the grieving individual and the deceased, rather than drawing comparisons to one's own losses.
  • Support can also come in the form of practical action, such as offering childcare, meals and other concrete help.

It can be difficult to know what is appropriate to say after a person has passed away, which is why we often fall back on a few traditional phrases and sayings. But while sharing condolences is better than keeping quiet, these phrases are not always the best option available and may not represent the best intentions and support that you’re looking to share.

Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock
Source: Iryna Inshyna/Shutterstock

What to Consider When Comforting Someone Who Is Grieving

The things we say to someone who is grieving are going to vary. Still, there are a few essential considerations that you’ll want to keep in mind when supporting a friend or family member during grief, including some of the following.

It’s better to say the wrong thing. Our fear of saying the wrong thing during grief can often mean we don’t end up saying anything at all. To the person who is grieving, that may seem like a form of distancing or even a betrayal when they need support the most. There are many different ways to share condolences and support, but it’s better to put your foot in your mouth, if that’s what you’re really concerned about, than to not say anything.

It’s important to note that condolences can come in many forms. If you feel more comfortable sending flowers with a card or a dinner from a local restaurant, that shows your friend or colleague that you’re thinking of them in a way where you both feel comfortable and at ease.

Remember, it's about them. Oftentimes, we lean into the experiences that give us insight or help us to understand what another person is feeling. After a loss, we may bring up one we have experienced as a way of relating to a person who is grieving, but it’s best to do this with caution.

While the intention may be good, it can also lead to a situation where they are now supporting you, which can only add more emotional pressure to their experience. When supporting a person who is grieving, it’s important to remember that the situation is about them, and you only want to bring up your personal experiences if there is something useful or important to be shared from them.

Every type of grief will be different. A person will likely get a significant amount of support in the early days of grief, but that doesn’t mean they will be done grieving after the memorial service. Grief impacts every person in their own unique way and the person may react differently to two losses.

When supporting a person who is grieving, remember that there are many different types of grief and that there is no singular way to navigate loss or death. Follow their lead for tone, needs, and terms, to ensure you are providing the best support possible.

Meaningful Words and Phrases to Say When Someone Dies

It can be difficult to know what to say when someone dies or when you are trying to comfort a grieving friend. Here are some alternatives to common phrases of condolences that can be helpful for sharing support.

"Our family is thinking of you." If you are in a receiving line at a funeral, you may wish to speak on behalf of your family if they cannot be there with you, and that is entirely appropriate. You may say individual things, depending on what they might have asked or if there was a particularly close relationship, but you may also simply share that the whole family is offering condolences and support.

"They will be missed." This is also an important phrase because it shows that the person is not grieving alone. It also acknowledges that the loss is real and difficult. You may add personal comments here, about a class you shared or an annual adventure you would all go on together, and this phrase of condolences can stand on its own, as well.

"I remember when..." If you have time, memories and stories can be good to share. A receiving line at a funeral is often very busy, but short stories that have happy or funny endings can help to bring a smile to a person’s face. After the funeral, sharing stories can be a wonderful way to honor the person’s memory and to show their surviving friends and family how much they were loved by their community.

"Let me bring dinner." Practical support is sometimes the very best type of condolence. It can be tempting to ask the person how you can help them or to let them know that they can call at any time, but this often puts an undue burden on the person who is grieving.

Rather than asking them to delegate or find ways for you to help, simply offer up a few possibilities that are appropriate to your relationship. That may mean chores or errands like providing childcare or making dinner, or you may simply wish to share a few gift cards for local restaurants so they don’t have to worry about cooking for a while. After a loss, there are many things that need to be done, so a house-cleaning service can be helpful for keeping their space clean while they navigate the end-of-life process.

Terms and Phrases to Avoid

When supporting a friend who is grieving, there are a few terms and phrases that you’ll want to steer clear of, including some of the following:

"At least…" While this phrase is often intended to help the person find peace that the deceased is no longer suffering, it can serve to downplay the loss. The grief and loss are real, and it is important to acknowledge that.

"Everything happens for a reason." There is no way around grief or loss, and phrases like “everything happens for a reason” can make the person feel as though their emotions are not valid. The truth is, sometimes things just happen. Rather than trying to “fix” or “heal” a friend’s grief, it is better to simply be there and support them.

"It’s God’s plan." If you are part of a shared religious organization, it may be appropriate to invoke spiritual guidance, but you want to avoid pushing your religion onto anyone, especially someone who is grieving. Referring to loss as part of a plan can also undermine the true effects it leaves on the surviving family and friends, as well.

"I know how you feel." While you are trying to empathize, this phrase can center the grief around you, rather than the other person. And since everyone has their own grieving process, it’s better to simply focus on helping your friend through theirs.

"They would want you to…" You want to avoid presupposing what the deceased might have wished for or felt about the other person. It’s also important not to tell a person how to grieve or what to feel. They are the ones who get to decide what shape their grief takes.

There is no singular way to grieve, which means there are many different approaches when it comes to helping a friend or family member navigate grief. Support can come in the form of kind words that honor and remember the deceased, as well as in practical action, such as offering childcare, meals, or simply checking in regularly.

While there are a few statements and themes you’ll want to avoid when sharing condolences, showing up, sharing memories and support, and being there when the person asks for a friend are all important steps you can take for someone who is grieving.

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