I recently Googled what to say when someone dies and trust me on this, the results were paltry.  In fact, 98% of what I found were gems like this: 

  • Let me know if you need anything.
  • You’ll be in my prayers.
  • I’m only a phone call away.
  • I’m sorry for your loss.

Really?  This is what we have to offer one another in moments of indescribable pain—the equivalent of a thimble full of sand thrown at a volcano?  To be fair, we are wholly on our own in this arena, since schools don't offer courses in the etiquette of death—although come to think of it, they probably should—Grief 201:  What to Say To and How To Say It, or maybe Death 304:  What Not To Say, Ever, Under Any Circumstances.

And yet despite our lack of formal education, I think we can do better. 

Having said that, let me acknowledge the truth:  the death of a loved one is devastatingly painful.  And no one, no matter what they say or do, can alleviate that kind of pain.  The most we can offer is our unfailing support, since grief is a path traveled more or less alone; a journey of one, as the world and everyone in it continues to move forward.  So know that I am not proposing we undertake the impossible task of making people feel better after experiencing a death; but rather that we put more effort into choosing words and actions that indicate how much we care.  

To that end, I offer a few suggestions:

1. Remain Silent

Not permanently, of course, but at least long enough to give careful consideration to what will issue forth.  This can be a very brief pause, as when the guy in the checkout line, apropos of nothing, suddenly says:  yeah, so my dad just died.  Or a longer pause, as when you learn of a death through Facebook, friends, family members, etc, and you take the necessary time to think through an appropriate response.  Keep in mind there is no expiration date on death, so waiting a moment, an hour, a day, or a week, is not going to change the fact of the person’s loss—it will still be there, long after you come up with something meaningful to say. 

2.  Resist The Urge to Blurt

This is why it’s important to practice #1 because it gives us time and space to compose our thoughts before we blurt something we might later regret.  Like the guy who learned of a baby’s death only to blurt to the grieving mother, well, it’s good you at least have another kid, as if having one child somehow negates the pain of losing another.  So yes, resist the urge to blurt, even if you have to put your hand over your mouth as you pause for a moment of reflection. 

3.  Resist the Urge to Say Any of the Following:

  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • God wanted him/her to be with Him.
  • They're in a better place
  • She/he lived a long life.
  • Stay strong—your kid/spouse/parent needs you
  • At least he/she is not suffering

I could add to this list indefinitely, but the idea here is that you should avoid saying anything that offers a reason for the death that has transpired.  You do not know the reason, or even if there is one at all.  (Unless you’re actually God, of course, but then you wouldn’t be reading this because, well, you'd be God.)

4.  Never Say I Know How You Feel

Because you don’t.  Even if your loss is identical on paper (a husband killed in combat or a parent killed by cancer) the experience is always different.  In the same way no two marriages are ever alike, no two people will ever experience death in the same way.  It’s just not how we function.  So never assume you know how someone else is feeling.    

5. Do Not Mention Your Own Loss

This is a follow up to #4 because so many people do it and it’s so unhelpful.  If I am reeling from the death of a loved one, the very last thing I want to hear is how hard it was for you to lose your loved one, too.  I am not interested right now in how you learned to live with it, how you’re stronger because of it, how it happened for a reason, or how God was in control.  If someone wants to hear your experience or advice, trust me, they will ask for it.  If they don’t ask, please don’t offer.  It only makes the person feel as though their grief doesn’t matter if you explain to them how you’ve already been through it.  

Having said that, if you have experienced a deep loss of your own and have the time, energy, and compassion to come alongside the person, for however long it might take, and they have expressed pointed interest in your active support, then say it: I will be with you through this--I'm not afraid.

6.  Say More Than Just I’m sorry

I used to feel pretty secure saying I’m sorry in response to a death, until the day I met a woman who gave me the fish eye and replied:  You don't have to apologize, you didn’t kill him.  And she had a point.  When we say I’m sorry, what are we really trying to express?  Typically, it's that we feel badly for the survivors who are in pain, so it makes sense to include language explaining our true intent:  I’m so sorry _____ died, and for the pain his/her loss leaves behind.

For the casual encounter, (remember the guy in the checkout line?) this statement is a great starter, but don’t let yourself off the hook quite yet.  After all, there’s a reason he blurted this out to you in the first place, so pause, take a deep breath, and empathize.  Possible follow-ups might include: 

  • Was it unexpected? 
  • Were you able to say goodbye?
  • Do you have family support nearby?
  • I can’t imagine…

Someday it might very well be one of us standing in that checkout line, so give back in that moment and maybe when our own time comes, karma will remember our compassion. 

7. Be Willing to Listen, For Days/Months/Years

Few things are worse than being told it’s time to move on from one’s sorrow.  Just as no two people experience grief in the same way, no two people will share the same timeline for moving forward. (Notice I didn't say 'heal' or 'recover' here.  Why?  Because grief never really goes away, it just becomes a little more manageable.)  So try not to assume that a person’s need to talk about their loss, at length and/or often, signals an inability to cope or make progress.  If someone truly is stuck in the grieving process, believe me, it will not help the situation if you tell them it’s time to move on.  

Instead, be willing to listen.  When you call, email, or drop by for a visit, ask if they’d like to talk about the person who has died, or the events leading up to the death, or how they’re feeling right now, in this moment.  Remember your job is not to make them feel better, only to show you care by being willing to listen.  And don’t be afraid to ask questions; sometimes a thoughtful question goes a long way toward making a person feel validated, supported, and accepted, even if they’re grieving. 

If, on the other hand, the person in mourning prefers not to talk about what has happened, either because it’s too painful, or uncomfortable, or any other number of reasons, respect their wishes and follow their lead.  Instead, try taking action—see #9 for suggestions.

8. What To Say or Write

When it comes to death, there is no one-size-fits-all expression--it all depends on who has died and the type of relationship you have with the survivor.  So aim for being specific, and always tailor your sentiments to the individual.  A few examples include:

  • Tonight, I’m raising a glass in memory of ______.
  • I remember when _______....
  • I saw (insert amazing/beautiful/funny thing) today and thought of you/______.
  • This sucks.  I hate that you are in pain.
  • I was thinking of you just now and hoping you were breathing, deeply if you can.
  • I listened to (insert title of song) today and thought of you/_____.
  • I’m lighting a candle and with the smoke will go my gratitude for having known _____.
  • If I could take this pain from you for even one second, I would.
  • We made a donation to (insert charity) in honor of _____’s memory. 
  • Feeling disoriented over the loss of ______; it’s just not the same world without him/her. 
  • I wore my _____ today in honor of you/______; it made me laugh/cry/remember.
  • I know I can’t make this better, but I love you.
  • When ______ died, a piece of my heart went with him/her and another piece broke for your loss.

9. What To Do

  • Give them a hug, then give them another hug later
  • Offer to write thank you notes on their behalf
  • Invite them outside, for anything:  walk, hike, bike ride, etc.
  • Plant a tree and send a note explaining it’s in honor of ______
  • Offer to be the 'gatekeeper'; the person who organizes help, disperses information, etc.
  • Drop off bath salts and a candle
  • Be consistent; if you've offered to help, show up--then keep showing up for as long as you're needed
  • Leave flowers or a note at the gravesite in advance of an important date
  • Bring them a copy of your favorite book/movie
  • Create a short video using photographs you have (or can borrow) and a favorite song
  • Make offers of help specific and direct: 
    • I’ll pick up the kids on Sunday for an hour at the park
    • I’d like to bring dinner next Tuesday
    • I’ll be over to mow the lawn on Saturday
    • I will stop by on Friday's to set out the trash

10.  Remember, You Can’t Make It Better, But You Can Show You Care

All of us, eventually, will join the club of mourning.  If you’re already a member, offer to the newly bereaved your quiet strength and gracious presence, as someone who has come through a similar valley.  If you have yet to be initiated, enjoy every second; just don’t forget to offer compassion to those who have gone ahead. And always remember to pause because these are the moments we discover the words and actions that show how much we care.