Grief is complicated. Whether the death of a loved one is expected or a complete shock, the feelings people go through are complex, confusing and ever-changing. All you want to do is be there for the person and offer your condolences, but it’s actually very easy to mess this up.
There are a lot of factors you need to consider, including what to say, how to say it, when to say it, and in an age where a misplaced comma can transform the meaning of a text message, what medium by which you offer your condolences. Then there’s your relationship to the dead and to the grieving, as any personal issues may be magnified by the raw emotions of the situation.
All in all, offering condolences can be an emotional minefield. Consider this then a map to getting through it all in one piece.
Be Aware of Their State of Mind
The first thing you need to understand about grief is that it’s completely unique to every individual and every loss. Grief counselor Amy Olshever explains that our minds tend to categorize deaths into either “in sequence” — like the death of an older relative — or “out-of-sequence,” which refers to the death of someone young. “If a parent loses a child or someone dies young, it can be very hard to integrate those losses in our mind and to understand them,” says Olshever.
But the death of an old or sick relative may be taken just as hard. “Nobody is ever truly prepared for someone to die,” she explains, so never make an assumption about how someone is feeling.
What To Say
When trying to find the right words, remember this sage piece of advice from Olshever: “Offering condolences isn’t about alleviating someone’s pain, it’s about acknowledging it.” Basically that means that simply saying, “I’m sorry for your loss” is a good standby — i.e., if you don’t know what to say, just say that. Similarly: “I don’t know what to say,” is a fine, genuine response, too.
Another means of offering condolences is by sharing your stories of the deceased. While it’s best to wait until after the shock passes, many will find comfort in good stories and funny anecdotes. “When I speak at a funeral, I usually make a point to say how important it is to keep alive the memory of the deceased,” says Barry Bernstein from Morse Funeral Home. “I explain that each person in this room has a unique experience of the one who passed. Because of that, it’s important for everyone to talk to each other, and as a result, they’ll paint a picture of that person’s life and maybe even learn new things about them.”
What Not To Say
“People say a lot of things they shouldn’t,” says Olshever. It’s very easy to say the wrong thing in this situation, and even some common messages that you think may be comforting, may only worsen someone’s pain. “Avoid things like, ‘They’re in a better place.’ Or: ‘At least they’re out of their misery,’” explains Diane Gottsman, the founder of The Protocol School Texas. “Comments like these come across as trite and uncaring.”
One phrase is especially important to avoid: “I know how you feel.” Literally all of the people we consulted about this say to steer clear of those five words no matter what. Not only does it minimize their feelings, but it’s also just flat out not true. Every death and every relationship is different, and even if you have experienced a similar loss, you don’t know what this one’s like. Perhaps they had an argument with the deceased before they died, or maybe there were words left unsaid — or countless other things that may be haunting them. “I’ve known a lot of tragedy in my life,” says Barbara, a reverend from Harlem. “From my mother, to a sister-in-law who was murdered, to the death of my youngest son. But I never, never say, ‘I know how you feel,’ because I don’t.”
Be Careful with Religion
Even if your intentions are good, the grieving process isn’t a time for you to push your belief system on someone. “Saying something like, ‘They’re in a better place,’ is only comforting if the grieving person believes that,” says Olshever. So you really want to be sure your message will be received the way that you intended it. Similarly, if you aren’t a believer, but the grieving person is, there’s no need for you to lie and say something disingenuous. If someone does say, “They’re with God now,” you can simply reply, “I’m so glad you find comfort in that,” says Olshever.
While it seems obvious for the religious person not to push their belief on the secular person in a time of grief, you also want to be mindful of how you address a fellow believer, says the deeply faithful Reverend Barbara. “One thing that happened to me when I was grieving the loss of my son was that people wanted to quote scripture to me, and I found that to be so irritating. I believe in scripture and I believe in the bible, but let’s just be real. Put some human emotion into it because you sound like a program,” she recalls. “Although people of faith are supposed to rejoice in death, that’s very hard to do. You mourn. You grieve. You get angry. And sometimes you even get angry with God.”
Be Mindful of Your Relationships
While death can sometimes bring people together, it can just as easily tear them apart, or it may just solidify the same old rivalries and family issues that were always there. When offering your condolences then, it’s important to consider your relationship to the grieving and to the mourning. Bernstein says, “If it’s been a tenuous relationship with the deceased, you may be best not to go to the wake,” especially if you don’t think the deceased would want you there. Don’t make it about yourself.
But what if you want to offer condolences to someone who you don’t get along with? Well, that can be difficult to navigate, but remember that the most important thing is to be respectful of the ones closest to the deceased. That can get muddy with families, and may involve you having to plan around others. But if you’re just trying to offer kind words and you’re not sure how your message will be received, Olshever recommends to just send a card.
Where to Say It
The best medium by which to offer condolences completely relies on the individuals involved. Gottsman believes, “Sometimes it’s more appropriate to set aside modern technology and go the more traditional route. Handwritten letters and sympathy cards allow you to express your condolences in a thoughtful way. A condolence note also allows the bereaved the time and space they may need to respond.”
A condolence card is an especially good way to show you care, especially since it shows that you made an effort in your reaching out. “With a condolence card, we try to offer a comforting word to show that you are thinking of them,” says Katherine Stano, a senior writer at Hallmark Cards. Cards are also a nice way of providing a keepsake for someone to read later, and they can help those who have trouble finding their words. Stano also offers up one of the most touching things she ever saw hand-written in a condolence card: “When you’re feeling better, I’d love to hear more about your mom.”
As for non-traditional methods of communication, this is where things can get tricky. If you aren’t going to see the grieving in person, a phone call is good, which you should make as soon as you find out or as soon as you’re comfortable with calling. “A condolence message shouldn’t be sent via text — regardless of how comfortable either party is with texting. Pick up the phone and give them a call,” urges Gottsman. “It feels most sincere when we can hear another person’s voice. If they don’t answer, that’s when it may be appropriate to respond with a follow-up text to check in on them and offer your support.”
Social media is even more complicated. Gottsman cautions, “Facebook is tricky.” She continues that some use it as a means to inform people of what’s happened without having to make a hundred phone calls, while others want total privacy and may withdraw from contact.
Olshever, meanwhile, feels that while social media may have its problems, for grief, she’s primarily seen it as helpful. “When you put something on Facebook, it can allow the person to process what’s being written in their own time and it can have a really healing effect.” It also provides an opportunity to be more thoughtful with your words, in a similar way that a card or a letter might.
Of course, sometimes people feel awkward about “liking” a post about a recent death or something sad, so Olshever says that she’s grateful Facebook added the crying emoji as a more suitable reply. She also says that it’s good to write a comment, too: “You have to acknowledge the painful side of it, so you can like the picture, but you should do more than that.”
Instagram is also okay, as that’s often dedicated to sharing family pictures, but it probably doesn’t make sense to tweet a condolence, as you should stick with the platforms that connect you with people more than the ones that connect you with news or information.
One thing to be very mindful of, though, is timing. Gottsman says, “[You] never want to be the first to mention someone else’s loss on social media. Allow them the opportunity to share the news first.”
Offering condolences shouldn’t stop after that initial phone call or Facebook post. For someone close to you, Barbara recommends that you check in “as often as you can, but use some common sense.” So if you feel like they just want their space, give it to them. Stano shares that sometimes the phrase, “Call me if you need anything,” can sound trite; instead, offer to walk their dog, babysit their kid or take their garbage to the curb — anything to show that you care. After time, it may also help people to just feel normal again, so Barbara recommends calling to talk about the weather or to go out to lunch.
If you’re really close to someone, and over time, you see them continuing to withdraw, you may want to recommend them getting professional help. While there’s no time frame you can put on it, Olshever shares that most support groups require three months following a death to be allowed into the group, but reiterates that an out-of-sequence death may take years to come to terms with.
Above all, in your quest to find the right thing to say, remember that it’s most important to be genuine and to be considerate of the situation. How you communicate and what you say is all important, but a lot of the time, the most important thing you can do is to listen. Barbara says that you should, “Just listen to them. Let them express their grief. Let them express their anger. Just listen.”
Because by just being there and being present, you’ll show that you truly do care.