What do you say when someone dies? It’s an age-old question. No matter how much time passes – or how many people you know that have lost a loved one – it never seems to get any easier to know what to say.
Below, we have tips for what to say (and what NOT to say) when someone you knew – or perhaps didn’t know all that well – dies.
It’s never any easy topic. Just keep in mind these tried-and-true tips. As you do, you’ll gain the confidence to say just the right thing at just the right time.
Let’s take a look at the ten best and worst things to say to someone who is grieving.
10 Best Things to Say When Someone Dies
First, let’s think about what to say when someone dies. These are just some tools that you can keep in the back of your mind, to say out loud (or in a condolence letter) when the time is right.
1. Don’t be afraid to say the deceased person’s name.
Your loved one is new to this loss in their life; they may not yet be ready to accept the fact that their loved one is no longer with them.
You can speak their loved one’s name as if they are still here, and not in the past tense. “[Name] is greatly missed,” is probably a little better than “[Name] was a great person.” (Both are perfectly acceptable, just something to think about.)
Speaking the name of the person who has died is a comforting affirmation that they did exist, and also serves to validate your loved one’s grief. Believe it or not, some friends and family will act as if the deceased person never existed, which, to the mourner who is thinking about them all the time, feels like ghosting.
2. Offer sympathy with a sincere tone.
Anyone can say “I’m sorry for your loss,” but a genuine, sincere tone of voice can be soothing and go a long way in showing just how much you care.
The way you say things matters almost as much as what you say.
3. Let the grieving person know you’re here for them.
Whatever they need, you’re just a phone call or text away.
4. Offer them a shoulder to cry on.
Be the friend who understands, who has an ear to listen and a shoulder to cry on. Just remember that sometimes you have to actually offer it to them. Say, “It’s ok if you cry around me, I won’t mind.”
5. Share a favorite memory.
You may have many memories of the deceased. Tell those stories!
Some may be familiar and thus comforting. Others may be brand new, and because of their newness provide a fresh moment that the grieving person can enjoy and appreciate.
6. Let them know that you’ve been thinking of them.
Tell them that they have been on your mind and in your prayers ever since you heard that their loved one has passed. This will help to realize that they’re not alone in their thoughts.
7. Acknowledge their grief.
You can do this by reiterating their feelings or expressing solidarity. “I’ve been there; it’s hard.” “I’m grieving with you.” “I’ll miss her/him too.”
(Just don’t get into grief comparison; we’ll talk more about that below.)
8. Let them know that you plan to check up on them.
And then follow through. Just because the funeral is over doesn’t mean their grief is.
It doesn’t take much; just a comment at the funeral or a text message saying, “I want to check in on you after all this settles down. I’ll follow up in a week or two, or before if you’re up for it.”
9. Tell them they are loved.
Let them know how much you love them as well as the person who has died. “I love you, friend. I love and miss David, too. You both mean the world to me.”
10. Show them what you’re trying to say.
Instead of overthinking everything by trying to get the right words out, offer a heartfelt hug, squeeze of the hand or even a knowing glance. Cry right along with them if you feel the need; it will show just how much you really care.
Related: 101 Condolence Messages
10 Worst Things to Say When Someone Dies
Now, let’s take a look at what NOT to say when someone dies. These are all pretty self-explanatory, but may come in handy if you’re nervous about talking to your loved one since they’ve experienced their loss.
1. If you can’t attend the funeral, don’t mention why.
To be a little blunt, there is no reason you could possibly give that will be good enough for the person who’s life has just been turned upside-down with grief.
2. Don’t try to distract them from their grief.
It may be in your nature to “fix” others’ problems, with humor or otherwise, but right now your loved one simply needs the time and space to mourn.
3. Don’t be general in your offerings to help.
Instead of saying, “Let me know if you need anything,” ask with sincerity, “What can I do to help you right now?”
4. Don’t insist that you know how they’re feeling right now.
It’s okay to say that you’ve “been there,” but keep in mind that you have no idea exactly how they’re experiencing their particular loss.
5. Don’t assume that your loved one is doing okay.
Sure, they might appear to be doing fine, or say they are when you ask. Care enough to dig a little deeper and observe a little more carefully. They might really be doing ok, and that’s a good thing. Then again, they might be struggling.
So be careful what you say. Statements like “You’re so strong” can actually be counter-productive when a grieving person is hiding behind a straight face.
6. Don’t try to be overly humorous or tell jokes.
Even if you’re sharing a funny memory of the person’s loved one. Those funny stories can be helpful and healing, but you should “read the room.”
Sometimes a happy story can dredge up sad tears again at the knowledge that this once vibrant person is now gone.
7. Don’t encourage them to “Hang in there.”
Same with “Stand firm,” “Be brave,” “Put on a stiff upper lip,” etc. These statements can discourage the release of emotion (crying), which is actually a healthy component of bereavement.
8. Don’t remind them that life goes on.
This may be true, but when grief is fresh, now’s not the time to say it.
9. Don’t make your loved one’s grief about you.
If they’ve just lost a pet, don’t share stories of your own pet’s demise. If they’ve lost their grandfather, don’t go over the timeline of your own grandfather’s death.
10. Don’t tell them clichés (religious or otherwise).
Give them real love and hope by thinking through what you tell them. Avoid any phrase that includes the word “vibes.” Avoid saying their loved one is “in a better place.”
Whether or not they are religious, right now – at least to them – there is no place they’d rather their loved one be that right by their side again.
Specific Sympathy Messages & Examples
Now we want to get really specific with how we can help you say the right thing. Below, we’ll take a look at some actual phrases and messages of condolence that you can offer your grieving loved one.
What to Say When Someone Dies
We begin with some generally appropriate condolence messages. You can write these in a sympathy card or use them at a funeral or other memorial.
- “I’m so very sorry for your loss.”
- “[Name] was a wonderful person.”
- “What can I do to help you right now?”
- “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.”
- Include a comforting Bible verse such as Psalm 34:18, Isaiah 43:2, and others.
- Include a poem, song lyric or comforting quote.
- Include your phone number or email address if appropriate.
What to Say When Someone Dies Unexpectedly
- “I’m so sad and sorry to hear about [Name].”
- “I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now.”
- “My thoughts and prayers are with you during this difficult time.”
- “Keep memories of happy times together close to your heart.”
- “It’s hard to believe, I’m just so sorry.”
What to Say When Someone Dies That You Don’t Know
- “I know you loved [Name] very much. And that you always will.”
- “I remember you speaking so fondly of [Name]. He/she sounds like a wonderful person.”
- “I’m so sorry I never had the honor of meeting [Name].”
- “If you want, I’d love to hear more about [Name].”
- “I’m here for you at any time, whatever you need. Here is my number/email.”
What to Say When Someone Dies of Cancer
- “I’ll be praying for you and your family.” (Be sure to actually do it.)
- “[Name] was such a wonderful person. He/she is gone too soon.”
- “I want you to know that I’m here to share in you grief, your anger, your sorrow, if and when you ever need me to.”
- “Cancer is awful. I am so, so sorry. Please know that you’re not alone in your grief.”
- “I know that grief is hard to bear when you’ve lost someone in such an unfair way.”
- “If love could have saved [Name], he/she would have lived forever.”
What to Say When a Father or Mother Dies
- “I’m so sorry to hear about your Mom/Dad.”
- “I’m going to miss your Dad. He was always there when we needed him the most.”
- “I will miss your Mom to no end. She made the world a better place just by being who she was.”
- “Never feel that you are alone or have to take of things by yourself. Please call me if there is anything I can do to help.
- “They were so proud of you. I’m sure they still are.”
What to Say When a Child Dies
- “I cannot find the words to express how utterly sorry I am for your loss.”
- “Even the smallest hands make an imprint on this world.”
- “I’m so sorry that you’re having to experience this.”
- “There’s nothing that I could say to ease the pain for you, but please know that I’m here for you.”
- “No matter how hard it gets, you are not alone. I’m right here with you.”
- “If I could make everything okay again for you, I would.”
What to Say When a Pet Dies
- “I know how much it hurts to lose a precious pet. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
- “Pets are our family, the pain is the same as if we’ve lost any other family member. Please accept my sincerest condolences.”
- “You simply can’t erase the memory of a good cat/dog.”
- “Wouldn’t it be nice if the Rainbow Bridge had visiting hours?” (If appropriate.)
- “It’s impossible to forget a creature who gave you so much to remember.”
Click here to browse thoughtful pet sympathy gift ideas.
We hope this article has provided you with the information you need to thoughtfully and gracefully offer condolences to your grieving loved one.
For further reading and encouragement, check out What to Say In a Sympathy Card (and What to Avoid).