How to Give Condolences

If a loved one, friend, or colleague has lost someone close to them, you may wonder how to give condolences sensitively and appropriately. You want to choose the right words and may worry that what you say will inadvertently cause emotional pain or discomfort. In Western culture, we are uncomfortable talking about death. The English language includes many euphemisms for death (such as “passing away”) that soften its harshness and finality.

While there are no rules, how you express condolences will depend on your relationship with the belated. The following guidelines can help.

How to Offer Condolences Sensitively

In giving condolences, be sure to acknowledge the bereaved person’s experience. Remember to keep the expression of sympathy and condolences about them and their loss.

“I’m so sorry for your loss.”
This is appropriate for most situations, particularly for acquaintances and co-workers.

“I’m really sorry for your loss. How are you holding up?” or “I’m here for you if you want to talk.”
With friends and close acquaintances, an acknowledgement and simple enquiry about their well-being gives the bereaved the option of opening up, and the gesture will be appreciated.

“My condolences to you and your family. Is there is anything I can do to help?”
After a loved one dies, family and friends are not only dealing with grief, but also become busy making arrangements and planning memorials and tributes. And they may take you up on an offer of help.

How Not to Give Condolences

Unless the grieved is very close family, avoid asking for details about the loved one’s passing.

Refrain from asking for details that could cause discomfort, painful memories, awkwardness or a reliving of trauma. Reminding the bereaved of the traumatic circumstances of a loved one’s death may open a wound or cause inner turmoil. Offer to listen and leave it there. If they want to share the circumstances and feel the need to talk about it, let them initiate. It’s best if the bereaved tells you of their own accord.

Avoid clichés.

“At least they are no longer suffering.”
This provides little consolation, and trying to find the “silver lining” in a loved-one’s death minimizes the bereaved’s pain.

“I know how you feel.”
You really don’t know how they feel, and the “I” statement also makes the expression about you, when it should be about them.

“It’s probably for the best.”
Death is never for the best for the bereaved. This statement diminishes what they are feeling.

“They’re at peace now. They’re in a better place.”
These don’t offer much sympathy or comfort to the bereaved even if they are religious or spiritual. Death is difficult for secular and spiritual people alike.

Appropriate Venues for Giving Condolences

Where and when to give condolences will depend on the situation. It’s usually best to give condolences within a few weeks of hearing of someone’s passing.

  • A phone call is probably most appropriate for family and friends or if you knew the deceased well.
  • If you knew the person who passed away, a card to the family expressing sympathy is appropriate. Keep it simple and add a personal hand-written note. If you knew the deceased, it’s okay to add a fond memory.
  • While it’s becoming the norm to express condolences online, you still have to be sensitive. Condolences in an online memorial website are appropriate for expressing sympathy and sharing a fond memory. On social media, if the bereaved has made a public announcement or posted about the passing of a loved one, it’s fine to express brief condolences.