Condolences – What to Say and What Not to Say to the Bereaved

Have you ever found your tongue tied in knots when you meet a friend, co-worker, or acquaintance who recently experienced the death of a loved one? You may think –  Maybe they don’t want to be reminded of it, so should I not say anything? What should I say? What if I say something and it’s the wrong thing? Aaaargh! Most of us have had this experience. But, fret not. There are simple things to say and do and others not to say and do that can be learned very quickly.

First, you can take concern about reminding bereaved people of their loss right off the table because their loss is always very much with them. They would be more likely wonder why you didn’t offer condolences, than be upset that you did.

As to what to say, here are some guidelines:
  • Give a simple expression of sorrow to a co-worker or acquaintance if you did not know the name of the person who died, as in “I’m sorry for your loss”, or “I’m sorry to hear that your father has died”.
  • If you do know the name of the deceased, say the name, as in “I’m very sorry to hear that your cousin Agnes has died”. Using the name of the person who died can be comforting to the bereaved.
  • If you know the person who died, you can say, “I’m very sorry that Phil has died. He was a wonderful man”. If he was as mean as a snake and everyone knew it, you might leave off that last part, as the bereaved will know you’re lying through your teeth.
  • If you are in a situation where further conversation is possible and appears welcome, share a memory you have of the deceased and then listen to the bereaved.

That last is an important element. Lend a sympathetic ear if the occasion calls for it. Listening is more important than talking when speaking with a bereaved person, and in many other situations. But that is for another blog post. Take your cue from the bereaved as to whether to continue the conversation.

Keep in mind that your condolences are welcome even if you are tongue-tied. However, there are some very specific things to not say. While they may seem outrageous, be assured that they have been said many times to bereaved people. This is to help you make sure you aren’t one of them, or to never be one of them again:
  • “I know just how you feel”. No, you do not. No two people grieve in the same way.
  • “It was God’s will”. Not everyone shares your beliefs or wants to be reminded of them.
  • “It’s probably for the best”. Not for you to say no matter how much a person suffered before death.
  • “You’ll get over it and move on”. People do not “get over” the loss of a loved one. They learn to live with their loss in whatever way works for them.
  • “You’re young enough to get married again”. Yikes! People are not replaceable, folks.
  • “At least you have other children (or siblings)” Yikes! Again, and ditto re replaceability.

Whew! Those are some of the most egregious ones. Perhaps you can think of others. Please send them along if you do.

So, keep it simple. Listen. Take your cue from the bereaved. And be compassionate.

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