What To Say When Someone Dies – And What Not To Say

What should you say when someone dies? And what exactly should you avoid saying? These are age-old questions, and you’re not the first person to wonder about the answers. 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.

So to help you out, below you will find some simple tips to help you remember what to say (and what NOT to say) when someone you knew – or perhaps didn’t know all that well – dies. While it’s never an easy topic, if you keep these tips in mind, you’ll gain the confidence to say just the right thing at just the right time.

Let’s take a look.

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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. So when it comes to words to say when someone dies, their loved one’s name is at the top of that list.

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 about your grieving friend.

The way you say things matters almost as much as what you say.

3. Share a favorite memory.

Need help figuring out what to say about a friend who passed away? Well, you probably have a favorite memory of the deceased…share that story with their loved ones! After a death, memories are everything, and the family will greatly appreciate some new stories and insights into their loved one. It’s such a meaningful way to express sympathy.

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. From personal experience, when my grandmother passed away, aunts and uncles and cousins came together to share memories of happier times spent with her. It was joyful to hear stories about her that were new to me, and so comforting to reminisce about her life, if only for a little bit.

4. Acknowledge their grief.

The grieving process is greatly helped by validation, understanding, and support. So one of the most helpful things you can do is to acknowledge someone’s grief by reiterating their feelings or expressing solidarity. A good way to do this is by saying something like “I’ve been there; it’s hard,” or “I’m grieving with you,” or “I’ll miss her/him too.” This will help them immensely along their grief journey.

(That said, it’s a good idea to not get into grief comparison; we’ll talk more about that below.)

5. 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 [Name], too. You both mean the world to me.” There are many different ways to express this.

Specific Sympathy Messages & Examples

When preparing to write a sympathy card, or to speak with someone after they’ve experienced a loss, it’s good to know beforehand what you’d like to say.

What to Say When Someone Passes Away

We begin with some generally appropriate condolence messages, simple yet filled with meaning. You can write these in a sympathy card, or use them at a funeral service or other memorial.

  • “I’m so very sorry for your loss.”
  • “[Name] was a wonderful person. You have my condolences.”
  • “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.

Related: Funeral Etiquette: A Brief Guide on What to Say & Do

What to Say When Someone Dies Unexpectedly

When someone passes away unexpectedly, emotions are understandably at an all-time high, for everyone who knew that person. Let’s take a look at some appropriate, and comforting, things to say to someone who has lost a loved one 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

In contrast, when you don’t know the person who has passed away, it can be a bit harder to come up with appropriate words of sympathy. Here are a few examples of what you could say or write in a sympathy card to someone who has lost a loved one, whom you never met.

  • “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.”

Best Condolence Messages to Write for Social Media

Social media can allow you to connect with the person grieving in the case that you can’t be there for them physically. Just as they would with a sympathy card, a bereaved family will greatly appreciate any words of comfort you are able to provide them through social media.

  • “It’s so bittersweet seeing everyone share photos of [Name]. He/she was a wonderful person. You and your family are in my thoughts and prayers.”
  • “My sweet, sweet friend, [Name]. This morning, I was looking through old photos of us and came across this one. I hope it brings a smile to your face.” (Share a photo with your message if appropriate.)
  • “I can’t believe that I’m even typing this. It all seems so surreal. I am thinking and praying for you, [Name] Family.”
  • “I am shocked and at a loss for words. Please let me know if there’s anything at all I can do for you.”
  • “[Name] is gone far too soon. I am so sorry for your loss. I am here for you.”

What to Write for Sympathy Work Emails

It’s hard to think of condolence messages when someone dies whom you were close to, let alone someone you didn’t know at all. Perhaps a co-worker has recently experienced the loss of a loved one, and you need to find the right words to say in a sympathy work email. At the end of the day, no matter what you say, your words will be remembered forever (and perhaps monitored by the company), so choose wisely.

  • “Hi, [Name]. I heard about your loss, and I just wanted to reach out and say that I’m so sorry. I am here if you need to talk.”
  • “I am so sorry for your loss, [Name]. If you need any help with your workload when you get back from bereavement leave, don’t hesitate to reach out.”
  • “I’m [Your name] from Department [your department]. We haven’t talked that much, but I heard about your loss and just wanted to let you know that you are in my thoughts at this time. I am here if you need anything.”
  • Hi, [Name]. I am so, so sorry to hear about the loss of [Name.] I enjoyed getting to meet them at the company party last year. They will be sorely missed.”
  • “Hey [Name], when you’re ready, me and the guys would like to take you out for lunch one day, on us. Your choice! And only if you want to. Take all the time you need.”

What to Say When Someone Dies of Cancer

Almost everyone has felt the sting of cancer, either directly or indirectly. If you know someone who is grieving the loss of someone who had cancer, not shying away from using the “C” word when providing comfort can go a long way in showing that you really do care about what they are going through.

  • “Cancer doesn’t have a hold of [Name] anymore. 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 your 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

The loss of a parent is a universal loss that most people will eventually experience. Here are some tried-and-true words of comfort and sympathy to extend to someone who has lost a parent.

  • “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 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.”

Need to find a sympathy gift for a loved one who’s lost their Mom or Dad?

What to Say When a Child Dies

Needless to say, when a family experiences the loss of a child, there are honestly no words good enough to ease the pain. Still, here is a list of comforting things to say, or to write in a card, that attempts to capture that feeling of sympathy.

  • “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

It goes without saying, but our pets are our family, too. When a beloved pet dies, it’s still a great loss, and the grief can feel the same as if a family member has passed away. Everyone who’s lost a pet is on their own journey of grief and remembrance, and your words of understanding can help to support that experience.

  • “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. Please accept this sympathy gift from our family to you.”

Simple Things to Say to Someone Who Lost a Loved One

Even if you’re a person of few words, it’s still appropriate to extend a message of sympathy when someone you know loses a loved one. Here are some short and sweet words of comfort you can provide that are good for pretty much any kind of loss.

  • “I’m so sorry for your loss. I will be praying for you and your family.”
  • “You have my deepest sympathy.”
  • “I heard about [Name]. I am so sorry.”
  • “I am here if you need me. Just say the word and I’ll be there.”
  • “My heartfelt condolences. What can I do to help you right now?”

What NOT to Say (or Do) 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.

It’s just the wrong thing to do. To be a little blunt, there is no reason you could possibly give that will be good enough for the bereaved people whose lives have 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. There is no time limit to grief; it could last a long time or a short time, or be on-and-off. The last thing you want to do is add to the bereaved person’s sorrow by interrupting their grief journey.

3. Don’t be general in your offerings to help.

Following their loss, I can guarantee your loved one has heard every variation of “Let me know if you need anything.” Instead of saying that, ask with sincerity, “What exactly can I do to help you right now?” Words of condolence are one thing; condolence in action is quite another.

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 processing their particular loss, even if you went through a similar loss. It’s their own unique experience.

I’m not saying you don’t have good intentions, but our own experiences and circumstances are still very different, and not everyone appreciates even positive comparisons at a time of great loss. Instead, say something more along the lines of, “I can’t imagine the pain you are going through right now. I’m here for you if you need anything at all.”

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. Remember, no matter appearances, this is most likely the most challenging time of their life.

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.

How to Show Empathy to Someone Grieving

As any good psychologist or counselor would say, sympathy and empathy are two different perspectives. Sympathy requires that you maintain your own perspective when considering another person’s grief, while empathy requires that you put yourself in the other person’s shoes.

Offering practical support to someone grieving is one of the best ways to empathize with what they are going through. Here are some ways to do that.

1. Let the grieving person know you’re here for them.

After a loss, it’s way too easy to become lost and alone in grief. Whatever your loved one needs, whether words of sympathy or help with planning the memorial service, let them know you’re just a phone call or text away.

2. 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.”

3. 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 them realize that they’re not alone in their thoughts.

4. 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.”

5. 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.

We hope this has helped you find just the right comforting words to say, or to write, in a condolence card for your loved one. Whether you have known the person who has passed on for years, or you are offering condolences for someone you never met, you are doing a wonderful thing by being there for your loved one in their time of grief.

What are some heartful words of comfort or sympathy you have received after experiencing a loss? Please share in a comment below.

Read Next: 101 Condolence Messages to Express Your Sympathy

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1 thought on “What To Say When Someone Dies – And What Not To Say”

  1. The one phrase I use most often I actually got from Star Trek the original series. It is a statement made by the Vulcan High Priestess T’Pau to Dr. McCoy in Amok Time. She simply said “I grieve with Thee”. Used with a hug or hand hold or even a bowing head, it says it all without saying too much.

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