Why ‘I’m sorry for your loss’ is not the best thing to say after a death
“I’m sorry for your loss” and “my condolences” are common ways to express sympathy after someone has died—but they can come off as inauthentic or remote, worsening the sense of isolation that most bereaved people feel.
By focusing on “your loss” and “my condolences,” these phrases create distance when a bereaved person needs to feel connected with others more than ever.
Sentiments that put the focus on their experience and your desire to support them are more meaningful and resonant.
If you knew the person who died, offering a memory of them is another way to acknowledge their loss and may help them remember something they loved about the person who died.
Avoid saying you know how they feel, offering religious “reason” for their loss, or telling them they’ll feel better soon.
Knowing what to say to someone who has lost a loved one can feel awkward and uncomfortable. Even when all you want to do is express care and support, it is easy to get tongue-tied and caught up in your own fears about saying the “wrong thing.”
The most important thing is to convey your good intentions—there can be nothing wrong about that. At the same time, you also want to be careful about not crossing any personal, social, or emotional boundaries that would exceed the limits of your relationship or create discomfort about the person who died.
These calculations are generally made in just a few seconds. That’s why the most common phrases people reach for in these moments tend to be well intentioned but also robotic and distancing.
“I’m sorry for your loss” or “my condolences” may be pre-printed on greeting cards, but they lack the authenticity of the relationship you have with the person who is grieving.
They also are somewhat formal words that emphasize that the speaker and the bereaved person are on opposite sides of the fence when it comes to loss, instead of stressing that you are here for them in this experience, in any way that you can be.
Instead of “sorry for your loss,” consider something like, “I heard about your father. I’m sorry you’re going through this. That’s a lot and I’m thinking of you.”
So, making an effort to have other, more meaningful phrases ready for sad situations is helpful—but that can also be its own difficult process.
After all, you are preparing yourself to deal directly with what’s likely to be an uncomfortable situation and, in the process, you may be confronting some of your own feelings about death and your experience.
How do you find a balance between being there for someone who is grieving and protecting yourself from their grief and your own?
Expressing your sympathy
There is never anything wrong with acknowledging a loss and saying you’re sorry. In fact, the two words “I’m sorry” are the beginning of the phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss.”
But on their own they say more because they acknowledge the difficulty of managing grief.
Finding an alternate way to be supportive within the context of your relationship with the person who is grieving may take an extra moment, but you may find an approach that is authentic to you, such as:
Change the words a little and make it more personal. Instead of “sorry for your loss,” consider something like, “I heard about your father. I’m sorry you’re going through this. That’s a lot and I’m thinking of you.” You are making it about them by putting yourself in empathy with the person and seeing them in their pain.
Share a memory. If you met the person who died, you may have a short anecdote to share. If not, you might recall a story from the person you’re comforting. “I remember when you told me about going fishing with your dad last year. What a lovely memory.” This can help them recall their own positive experiences and relieve them for a moment from the difficult present. (If they don’t smile, don’t take it personally.)
Offer emotional space for the person you’re comforting to respond. Many people offer standard sympathy statements because it’s easy to do, death is hard to process, and they can’t get far away fast enough. If you can be generous enough to allow the person to express some of what they’re going through, that moment of true sympathy may be of immense comfort.
Ask if there is anything you can do. Not only does taking action help some people feel more sympathetic, it is actually helpful to the person who is grieving if handled well. It is important to suggest specific tasks you’re willing to follow through on rather than rely on the grieving person to come up with a to-do list. A co-worker may need you to put all the sympathy cards in their desk drawer. Your neighbor may need some milk and eggs the next time you are going to the store, or you could help mourners park if they are coming back to the house after the funeral.
In your effort to find just the right thing to say, you may be worried about saying the wrong thing. True, it’s possible to cross boundaries, especially if you don’t know the person well. Approaches that could make the situation more difficult include:
Making assumptions about their feelings or telling them you know how they feel.
Downplaying their grief and trying to solve it or compare it to other losses.
Telling them they’ll feel better soon or that grief will pass on a certain timetable.
Using religion as the “reason” for their loss, or adding religious sentiments to your sympathy, especially if you are not of their faith, you don’t know their faith, or you don’t know how they feel about their faith.
It’s worth the effort, if you can make it, to leave the clichés to the greeting cards and take a moment to dig deep for a true expression of your empathy. That person will probably cherish for some time the person who made a meaningful attempt to connect and provide comfort.
If finding the right words isn’t something you can do on your own right now, there may be comfort in numbers. Instead of worrying about what to say, organize people in the same circles to go in on a group card or gift. The more people who join in, the more supportive you will all seem, and your gesture will speak for itself ●
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