Finding the right words to say when someone dies is really hard. It can even be a paralyzing distress that leads to inaction.
You might stare into the blinking cursor of an empty text message for hours before setting down your phone, or you might think about what to write in a sympathy card for days before pushing it – and its daunting blankness – beneath a pile of bills.
It’s understandable. Those words are hard to write. Worse, there is no perfect thing to say or single turn of phrase that will comfort every person who is experiencing grief. That grief is unique to the person and to her circumstances.
Let’s dive into this a bit further. There is one piece of universal advice for what to say when someone dies.
Whatever you do, don’t talk yourself out of reaching out. Don’t search so long for the right words that you settle on no words at all.
Whether it’s a card, a text, a phone call, or an in-person visit, show up and use whatever words you have. Trust me on this, even the wrong words are better than disappearing.
When my fiancé died of cancer, many people backpedaled right out of my life. I wholeheartedly understand and forgive the folks who needed to distance themselves from my pain for reasons of their own, but I urge you to fight the desire to take flight.
Send that text. Write that card. Don’t worry too much about saying the right thing. Since it’s true that there are no words that will heal the ache or fill the void for your loved one, say exactly that.
It’s true that “there are no words” and “I’m sorry for your loss” are, indeed, clichés, but this is the time to use the overused phrase.
In fact, as a writer who rips clichés out of rough drafts like a dentist excavates cavities, I can assure you this is the time that even a writer won’t judge a mundane phrase.
Don’t overthink this part! Use the comforting cliché if those are the words that you find.
Here are some other ideas for what to say when someone dies:
Saying that rather than “how can I help” goes a really long way to show that you are available without placing your own need to help on the shoulders of the griever. Grief renders us (both the griever and those who surround him) helpless; that’s part of the process.
Your grieving loved one does not want to think of ways for you to help him. He does want to know that you are always there.
For me, this was the most comforting phrase that could be said. I loved hearing all of the stories of my partner that I didn’t get to learn before he died. Any conversation that started with “I remember when…” was a welcomed one.
If you don’t know the deceased, it can be even hard to know what to say when someone dies. Try this: See if you can tell your grieving person a story of how you noticed a change in her – for the better – because her person came into her life even if just for a short time.
No matter what, in deciding what to say when someone dies, please use the name of the deceased. It is all she can think of, so avoiding his name just gets awkward and obvious.
This is a go-to phrase if you didn’t know the person who died. It’s also one to use if you don’t know the person who is grieving.
Shortly after my partner’s death, I struck up a conversation on an airplane, and I dared to say the words that make people so uncomfortable. I told the guy in the middle seat that my partner died of cancer.
His response was perfect. He said: “That fucking sucks. Tell me about Jeff. He must have been amazing.”
This is a good phrase to use when someone dies if your loved one is opening up about the grieving process. He may be trying to rationalize his behavior or remarking on how he can belly laugh one moment and ugly cry the next.
Reminding him that it’s OK not to be OK right now will help him accept his own and unique grieving process.
Now, for this technique, you need to be there in person. If you are able to comfort your loved one in the flesh, then a hug without words is everything.
When Jeff took his last breath he was surrounded by loved ones. As I write this, that circle of love around a hospital bed is not possible due to a pandemic, so I realize just how lucky he was, and how lucky I was to have hands to hold and arms to hold me.
But having all those people around also meant that I needed to seek a few moments of quiet now and again.
About 30 minutes after Jeff’s death, I slipped out of the crowded hospital and down to the park below his window to sit in the incongruous sun of a warm Chicago afternoon.
My best friend and my parents joined me. Because my mom couldn’t sit in silence just then, she walked by herself around the park. My best friend and father sat on the grass, flanking me.
They said absolutely nothing, and it was exactly what I needed.
While I am urging you not to overthink your outreach to someone experiencing grief, there are some things that should not be said.
If you feel compelled to say any of the following phrases, please reconsider.
There is a big difference between acknowledging the loss and rationalizing it. Your grieving loved one is not ready to consider a better place for his partner other than the place right next to him.
If your grieving friend is going to come to this conclusion, let her do it on her own. It will be through a long grieving process that she gets here, and she may never conclude that the death of her loved one happened for some grand plan.
This falls into the category of a false-comfort cliché that offers more comfort to you than to the grieving person.
Other false-comfort phrases to avoid include: “It’s all for the best” “It was all God’s plan,” and “She performed her duties here”. Or anything beginning with:
Pretty much scrap whatever you are going to say/write if it begins with “at least.” This is not the time to compare your experience with grief or with death.
Even “at least he is no longer in pain,” is an unnecessary reminder of that pain. (Though your grieving person may want to say this phrase, and you should absolutely agree.)
To take that a step further, your grieving person doesn’t need to be reminded of the relief that she feels because her person is no longer in pain. It’s a horrible part of the grieving process that she is in the process of reconciling.
Just avoid “at least”.
Rather than putting the burden of outreach on your grieving loved one, try to offer specific help. Bring over dinner or a bottle of wine, or simply check in every other day via text or a phone call.
Sometimes you don’t need to worry about what to say when someone dies because all your loved one needs is to reminisce. Your job is just to listen. And, if your loved one doesn’t want to talk, then your job is to simply be there or be available just in case.
Show that you are available to talk whenever she wants and you will be someone that she calls on when she’s ready.
My partner was 40 years old and healthy; he died of a cancer that tends to ensnare smokers.
It got to a point where I had would say, “he died of esophageal cancer, and, no, he didn’t smoke.”
Hold back on your morbid curiosity when comforting a person experiencing grief. He will offer details when and if it helps him to speak those details out loud.
I could write a whole blog post about this one. For now, I’ll just say too soon, man. Too soon.
The experience of grief is unique to the person and to her circumstance.
Case in point, author and comedian Laurie Kilmartin was the first person to make me consider death clichés in her hilariously irreverent book Dead People Suck: A Guide for Survivors of the Newly Departed.
While Kilmartin agrees that those clichés are good to share with the grieving, she also insists that she did not lose her father. No, she contends, he is not lost. He is dead.
When I read Kilmartin’s words two months after Jeff died of cancer, I was startled by the sound of my own laughter.
I really needed that laugh in those haunted days when the celebrations of life faded into the reality of a lost life.
BUT the word “death” still made me sort of wince. It took me a few more months before I could use the word death or dead without cloaking the black words in safe and flowery euphemisms.
That book wouldn’t be for everyone. There is just no one gift, word, turn of phrase that works for every person experiencing unique grief.
But that book did help me. So, with the caveat that it may not help every grieving person, here are seven books that helped me through my own grief.
Please remember that your loved one’s grief is unique to her and to her circumstances. But that’s where you come in. You are part of her world, her support network, and her circumstances.
Whatever you choose to do or say when someone dies, please show up.
I really love these empathy cards by Emily McDowell & Friends. There are a ton of great options on her website that are sure to make your loved one smile through the tears.