For something as common and universal as death, it’s quite amazing how often most of us struggle with knowing what to say to someone when someone dies.
If you find yourself at a loss regarding what to say when someone dies or what to write in condolence cards and sympathy messages on social media, here are 5 simple guidelines to follow:
1. Don’t make assumptions
Don’t assume that you know the quality of the relationship between the person you want to console and the person who passed.
If you’re engaged in conversation with the person you want to comfort, you can ask questions that will give you a clue, such as, “What will you miss the most about (the person’s name)?”
This helps you avoid accidentally walking into an awkward situation, such as the person being really glad (or at least, not particularly sad) that their relative is no longer around.
2. Ask about a favourite memory
Generally, most people will be open to you asking what their favourite memory is about the person. Sometimes they appreciate the opportunity to share something from their last moments with the person or about a recent visit they had.
3. Listen rather than talk
Refrain from telling all your own stories about people who have passed and about your own grief process and timing unless you are asked to do so.
Each person’s experience is unique and needs to be honoured. Let them know you are open to listening whenever they need to talk.
4. Offer to help with something practical
Ask if there is anything you can do to help with the arrangements and if you should work with another person on it instead of overwhelming your friend.
5. Be gentle
Be compassionate, kind, and helpful.
Important note: An especially sensitive topic that often comes up when someone passes is life after death. If you don’t already know the person’s beliefs, try to find out if they would or would not find it comforting to hear that their loved one’s soul has gone on to a better place. If they don’t believe in the hereafter, it’s better to focus on simply saying something positive about the person’s life here on earth.
Sometimes what we say is really about allowing our actions to speak for us.