How to express Sympathy

Donna - dsw

Well-Known Member
Good article in WSJ today!

How can you comfort someone grieving the death of a loved one? What can you say that might adequately offer solace? "I'm sorry" doesn't seem to cut it.
I felt this acutely after my cousin, Arthur, died unexpectedly in his sleep a few weeks ago. Although I was deeply sad myself, I wanted to offer support to his mother, father, wife and sister. But what words or gestures might help them, not just before and during the funeral but also day-in and day-out as they continue to mourn? How can I avoid making them feel worse? Should I call a lot, visit, write emails? Talk about my fond memories of my cousin? Share my own grief? Or should I leave them alone and give them space?
Janice Nadeau

A Modern Condolences Guide

People often are at a loss for how to express sympathy and offer comfort to someone who is grieving the death of a loved one, both immediately after the death and weeks or months later. Here are some tips.
  • REACH OUT. But don't let email or texting take the place of an in-person visit or phone call. Remember, much of what we find comforting—tone of voice, eye contact, touch—is nonverbal.
  • LISTEN. Follow the mourner's lead. Let the person talk about what is important to him.
  • SHARE A MEMORY. For someone who is grieving, hearing about things the loved one said and did, and what they meant to others, is comforting.
  • OFFER PRACTICAL HELP. Can you assist with funeral planning? Babysitting? Mowing the lawn? Most people don't ask for help because they don't want to seem needy.
  • ASK BEFORE BRINGING A LOT OF FOOD. What do the mourners want or need? It doesn't have to be fancy—perhaps milk, eggs or orange juice?
  • GIVE SOMETHING THAT WILL LIVE ON. Consider skipping the flowers. Perhaps share a memento, or make a charitable donation to honor the deceased.

"There is a skill to comforting, but we are not taught it," says Val Walker, a grief educator and author of "The Art of Comforting." "We are such a fix-it society, we think we are supposed to help the person feel better, instead of just listening to what someone is saying." Alternatively, we often avoid people who are vulnerable or in need because we feel uncomfortable with their emotions, she says.
Adrienne Crowther learned this the hard way in 2009, when her husband died after a long illness. Friends offered constant support, and some even helped her to plan the funeral. But a few disappeared. Several months later, Ms. Crowther ran into an old friend in the grocery store and asked if she'd heard about her loss. The friend replied that she had—and immediately changed the subject.
"It was such a slap in the face," says Ms. Crowther, 54, who sees a lot of grieving people in her line of work. She owns a gallery that sells memorial art and cremation urns in Asheville, N.C. "People are so uncomfortable with death that they often don't know what to say," she says. "But I'd rather have a trite statement than ignoring the issue altogether."
Perhaps the most difficult conversation of all involves breaking the news of a loved one's death. Grief counselors say to deliver the news simply and quickly—in one or two sentences, and in as private a setting as possible. Wait while the person absorbs the shock, then offer your support.
But how? I asked my grieving family members. My Uncle Sidney, Arthur's father, said he was comforted in the days and weeks after the funeral when people sent emails or called. "Unhelpful," he says, "is being told, 'You're not supposed to bury your child' or 'He was so young!' "
My cousin Sarah, Arthur's sister, said she appreciated getting multiple phone calls, emails or texts from friends who didn't pressure her to respond. Instead, they just said they would call again. "There is something comforting about not needing to talk or respond, but knowing that the support will be offered again the next day," she says.
When Christine White's husband died suddenly two years ago, neighbors and friends tried to express their condolences. They called to ask what happened and how she was doing. They showed up with food: taco casseroles, barbecued beef, fried chicken. And they offered help, in some cases telling her to let them know what she needed.
Ms. White found all of it annoying. The inquiries about her husband's death made her rehash her pain, she says, while questions about how she was faring made her feel she had to lie and say she was fine. She had no appetite and gave most of the incoming food to her dogs. "They were such cookie-cutter responses," says Ms. White, 36, who owns a spa-products company in Lewisville, Texas. "They weren't helpful."
What did give her comfort, she says, was a spiritual poem that she received from a woman who had also lost her husband. And she found solace in a box of glass "worry angels" from a cousin and a link to the song "Held," by Natalie Grant, sent by a friend.
The Juggle

Tiffany Andersen, 28, a Gilbert, Ariz., dentist who has lost both of her parents, says she greatly appreciated it when people recalled how her father made the best pineapple chicken, or that her mother "had a way of helping others." "It was supportive to hear that they both weren't lost from this world completely, just physically," Ms. Andersen says.
When Paula Altschuler's mother died unexpectedly six months ago, Ms. Altschuler was traveling with her husband in Malaysia. While on a layover in Seoul during the three-day trip back to Florida for the memorial service, Ms. Altschuler logged onto Facebook and found hundreds of messages of condolence posted on her wall and sent to her personally. Some people said they were sorry for her loss, or that they were thinking of her. Others shared memories, sometimes funny, of her mother. "It felt very supportive," says Ms. Altschuler, 30, a graduate student in Park City, Utah.
Yet Ms. Altschuler found some of the expressions of sympathy upsetting—namely, the religious ones. She felt uncomfortable when people told her that her mother's spirit would comfort her or that her mother was watching over her. "That's an opinion," Ms. Altschuler says. "And to have someone tell me that goes against what I believe."
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Janice Nadeau Condolences may be well-meaning but hit the wrong notes.

Journal Community

So what is the right way to comfort someone who is grieving? Here are some suggestions, culled from grief experts and people who have lost a loved one:
Say something simple. "I am sorry to hear the news" will suffice at first. Then, on an ongoing basis, "I am thinking of you."
Admit that you don't know what to say, says Ms. Walker, the grief educator.
Don't ask, "What happened?" "You are making the grieving person relive pain," says Ms. White, who lost her husband.
Don't launch into a detailed account of your loss of a loved one. "Give them just enough to let them know that you can relate," says Ms. Walker. "What you are trying to say is, 'I lost my mother, too. What is it like for you?' "
Avoid clichés. That includes, "Good things come from bad," "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger" and "He's at peace now." Ms. Walker says they're "preachy, presumptuous and impersonal."
Don't claim to know how the grieving person feels. You don't. Don't suggest that the mourner "move on." Stay away from words such as "ought," "should" and "need." You may want to say, "I can only imagine what you are going through."
Follow the mourning family's lead regarding Facebook. Have they posted about the death? If they haven't, don't expose their grief. Should you decide to use Facebook, simply express condolences or share a memory. Do not discuss circumstances of the death.
Keep your religious beliefs to yourself unless you are sure that the person you are trying to comfort shares them. (It is OK simply to say that you will keep the family in your prayers.)
If you are reaching out or offering help, don't expect a response. Explain that you are checking in but understand that the mourner may not be able to get back to you and so you will call again.
Promise to be there in the coming weeks and months. And keep your promise.
—Email Elizabeth Bernstein at or follow her column at


Well-Known Member
Very good advice. Thank you for sharing, especially at this sad time. I DO NOT and HAVE NEVER believed in sending flowers to a funeral home. Flowers are for the living...send me flowers while I am alive. When I am dead, send the flowers to a lonely man or woman in a nursing home to brighten their room and bring a smile to their face. In a few instances I have bought a white azalea bush after a death and had it delivered to the family so that they can plant it in honor and memory of their loved one. Donations to a charity are the best way to remember someone. I have stipulated that donations be made to St. Jude Children's Hospital.

red stripe

Well-Known Member
I always try to remember to contact the person that suffered the loss in the weeks and months after the death of their loved one, as usually we are surrounded by people reaching out at the time, but then life goes back to "normal: for most of us, and it is too easy to forget.
Or you think that contacting them will bring it back and cause them hurt.
Trust me.. the hurt is already there. Your reaching out comforts them and tells them that their loved one is not forgotten.

Most of us are not sure what to say, we may be hurting for them and yet we realize in our hearts that at this time the actual words are no real comfort. So we fumble our way along.
We tell them that we know how they feel because we lost a loved one too.
we do it because we want to let them know that they are not alone. Yet if we remember that moment in our lives.. we realise that when it happened to us, we WERE alone.
we (the one reaching out) having pain does not make the pain of the person suffering the loss any easier to bare.
And in fact they may feel that we are trivializing theirs.

Not one of us can truly understand the pain they are going through, because it is THIER pain, and their circumstances, and their lives.

in the long run.. all we can do is to listen to them when they need it. offer support as they make some of the most difficult decisions in their lives.

And do not shy away from talking about the loved one. Sometimes we are so afraid of rekindling the pain, that we ignore the subject.. and act as if it never happened.

Donna gave a good example.. that of someone changing the subject.
Yet I am sure that the person doing this did not mean it to look as if this was of no importance.. but that it was a combination of not knowing what to say or IF it should even be said.

I have always felt that as long as there is one person standing that still remembers a person that has died, that they are still with us. But that is what gives comfort to me and not necessarily the rest of the world.


Well-Known Member
Thanks so much for posting this, Donna...

When my Dad died, suddenly (he was actually babysitting my two kids at the time).....everything was total chaos....

We have such a huge family and everyone wanted to come to the house to console my Mother. Everyone gathered, there was a ton of food, etc.

Well, one of the girls from my Sister's church came over, put on an apron and stood at the sink and washed dishes, for hours...She kept everything cleaned up in the kitchen for days.

At the time, I don't think any of us really noticed that much, but now when I look back, I remember what she did for us with such love. She was like an angel, quietly working in the background.

I'll never forget her, and what she did for all of us in our time of sadness.


Well-Known Member
Donna, thanks for sharing this with us. I'm sure many of us will find it helpful. When my Dad died MANY years ago, my own maternal Grandmother said to me, "I'm so sorry, but I'm so happy that now your mother will be accepted back into the Church!" (Catholic....she, a divorced woman had married a divorced man somehow HER SIN would be absolved by HIS death?!?!?!). WRONG statement. I never felt the same about my grandmother from that day forward.

I will be saving this is very helpful.


Well-Known Member
Donna, thanks for sharing this with us. I'm sure many of us will find it helpful. When my Dad died MANY years ago, my own maternal Grandmother said to me, "I'm so sorry, but I'm so happy that now your mother will be accepted back into the Church!" (Catholic....she, a divorced woman had married a divorced man somehow HER SIN would be absolved by HIS death?!?!?!). WRONG statement. I never felt the same about my grandmother from that day forward. I will be saving this is very helpful.
So awful! I am sorry she spoke to you this way. As a Catholic, I believe the Church has come to realize their older ways have caused many to leave the Church.


Well-Known Member
Thanks Reggae .... that's the old it or leave it. But, of course, ....there IS no leaving it according to the church. I have made my own way and have found my own for me.


Well-Known Member
I have always felt that as long as there is one person standing that still remembers a person that has died, that they are still with us.
Red, I have ALWAYS believed this. There are several places on I-17 along the 165 mile route between my home and my mother's home where, years and years and years ago, I remember accidents that took the lives of fellow Arizonans. I didn't know any of them personally, and I no longer remember their names, but, at each of these places, as I pass by, I remember them (the college kids headed home to Phoenix from NAU for the weekend in the early 1970's and never made it; the entire family wiped out by an out-of-control semi headed down the Mogollon Rim with burnt-out non-functional brakes sometime in the 1980's; the armored car drivers murdered along I-17 near the Bumble Bee exit in the 70's or 80's) with a quiet thought, and knowing that they are remembered, even by a stranger, comforts me.



Forever Remembered
Donna - thank you for posting this timely advice. Unfortunately, we've needed to have this advice far too often recently.

MGram - what a horrid thing for your Grandmother to have said. Yes, I'm Catholic and, yes, I abhor thinking such as hers.