3 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Saying, “I’m Sorry For Your Loss.”

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What to Say (Or Not to Say) to Someone Who is Grieving

There were about 150 people at my father’s memorial service. Standing in the receiving line afterward it seemed like every conversation, whether it was with an old friend or a total stranger, began with the exact same phrase, “I’m sorry for your loss.” Most conversations didn’t go far beyond that, partly because there’s not much to say in response except, “thank you.”

A few people managed to mix in another platitude like, “He’s in a better place now” or, “At least his suffering is over,” but it all started to sound like a broken record pretty quickly; one that I had heard many times before, seen played out in movies and even unknowingly participated in myself. Now it was being played for me at one of the most painful moments of my life, and the hollowness of that experience would literally change my course forever.

Why do so many of us struggle with what to say to someone who is grieving?

Perhaps it’s because of our cultural death phobia, and the way it pathologizes everything related to sadness. If we’re not better at dealing with grief, then it’s because we’ve never been taught better. Unfortunately, that leaves the majority of people with only one stock phrase in their repertoire, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

1. Grieving Needs More than Clichés. 

One problem is simply the overwhelming use of this one phrase, while simultaneously reserving it almost exclusively for the family. It seems as the close friends aren’t really grieving at all, while family members get the idea of loss hammered into them over and over.

Saying, “I’m sorry for your loss” is a bit like the cashier saying, “Have a nice day,” at the convenience store. It betrays a lack of original thought and is so pervasive it has become irritating for many.

When responses are this programmed, how sincere is the sentiment? As more people start to become irritated by it, choosing this particular phrase because it feels “safe” isn’t really that safe anymore.

2. Clarity Works. Euphemisms Don’t.

Using the language of loss as a euphemism for death is one of many ways in which our culture conceals the reality of death, perpetuates our phobias about it, and keeps us trapped. Spoken by a griever, “I lost my mother in 2015” is being used to avoid saying the word “died.” Spoken to a griever it expresses pity combined with distancing, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

The problem is that it’s linguistically incorrect. The verb “to lose” is active, something we do. The reality of grief is that someone else died. You didn’t lose them in the same way you would lose your car keys or your wallet, and depending on your religious convictions you may not feel like you lost them at all.

For most of my life, I definitely thought of deceased loved ones as lost because I was well trained by the culture to do so. Visiting a Native American friend one day I said something about losing someone and my friend responded, “You don’t have to lose someone just because they died.”

That was the first time I was exposed to the idea that it’s possible to live in the presence of the dead, not as frightening ghosts, but as honored members of the clan.

These days I’ve become accustomed to drawing comfort from the idea that I’m living in the presence of departed loved ones. Actually, speaking to them in quiet moments when I’m alone is one of several key components—like meditation, being in nature or remembering special occasions—I use to process my grief whenever it shows up. Whether one wishes to think about that in terms of psychology or in terms of the spiritual language, it seems completely irrelevant. All I know is that I find it helpful.

3. It’s the Wrong Mental Programming.

Experts in the field of grief care (Stephen Jenkinson, for example) are starting to recommend using the language of suffering, healing, and overcoming challenges instead. The language of loss refutes the notion that there might be an upside to grief, a spiritual deepening that can result from being exposed to something that’s an inevitable consequence of being born and choosing to love each other. By shifting to the language of suffering, healing, and overcoming challenges instead, death and grieving can once again become the redemptive processes I’ve come to believe they were always meant to be.

After personally experiencing the old cliché and its real world application thousands of times over several decades, I remember quite vividly the first time someone said, “I’m sorry for your suffering. I’m here with you.”

How different those words felt!

I immediately knew the stranger sitting next to me on a park bench somehow understood something that had been missed by all the close friends and family who had been sorry for my loss, but not present with my suffering.

Firstly, she knew I was suffering, and her use of the word “sorry” came across as authentic compassion rather than pity. Second, there was no distancing or avoidance in the way she said it. She knew what I needed most: validation of my grief and someone willing to listen, even if that meant listening through some tears. Best of all there was no judgment.

Alternative Suggestions of What to Say to People Who are Grieving

Significant numbers of people are starting to open up about their dissatisfaction with this worn out cliché. Others seem almost determined to defend it as the ultimate expression of sympathy. What the defenders don’t seem to understand is that no one will ever be offended or hurt by not saying, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

For those wanting to improve their grief communication by eliminating clichés with more accurate, helpful, and authentic responses, but still aren’t sure what to say, here are a few other choices in no particular order. These are just a few of the many options available, and they can be combined in various ways to make them both personal and appropriate.

1. I’m sorry you’re suffering right now, but I’m here with you and willing to help any way I can. Is there anything you need right now?

2. I’m sorry for whatever challenges might lie ahead for you, but I’m here and willing to help. Would it be okay if I call next week just to check in with you?

3. Please accept my deepest condolences. I can’t imagine what you must be going through right now, but I know enough about grief to know that it can be very challenging. Don’t hesitate to call me if there’s anything I can do to help.

4. I’m so sorry to hear about _____. I’m sure you’re going to miss him/her terribly. How are you holding up?

5. I know there’s nothing I can say right now to make things better, but I also know that having someone to talk to at times like this is really important, so don’t hesitate to call me whenever you need to.

Follow any of those with what you loved most about the deceased or tell a story about a favorite memory of them, and I think most people will be pleased with the deep level of connection that’s instantly created. I’m absolutely certain the bereft will feel less isolated and better supported.

One reason is that the phrases above easily open into longer conversations, while “I’m sorry for your loss” tends to shut them down. In some cases, it’s even appropriate to simply remain silent and offer them a deeply heartfelt hug instead.

Most important of all is just being willing to listen and be present.

 

Relephant Watch:

5 Mindful Things to do Each Morning:

 

Author: Ed Preston

Image: Wiki Commons 

Editor: Sara Kärpänen

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Ed Preston

Ed Preston is a Certified Grief Recovery Specialist and mindfulness meditation teacher with over 20 years of experience. He is the founder of Triad Grief Recovery & Support Services in Greensboro, NC. He also has a degree in cultural anthropology and lived in the Four Corners region for 35 years, where he was a professional guide and bridge to the Navajo and Hopi cultures. Connect with Ed on his website.

Claudia Taylor Nov 3, 2018 7:32pm

Thoughtful piece timed post Day of the Dead. So true- we don’t lose loved ones when they pass. We continue to love.

Mary Ann Downs Oct 31, 2018 2:16pm

So appreciate this article. It is exactly what I have been saying/experiencing since my spouse's death. Especially this: '“I’m sorry for your loss” tends to shut them down' The shut down can become very deep because those words - I'm sorry for your loss - come across as a dismissal. I realize people are so uncomfortable with death but yes, silence and just holding space is much more appreciated. Thanks for writing this.

Steve-Team AE Pearson Oct 16, 2018 6:57pm

This is great. It's a pet-peave of mine when someone on FB types "RIP"...that's it? Someone died and all you can type is 3 lousy letters. I apprecaite the article and also be more mindful in this scenario! Thanks!

Rosalind Wilson Oct 9, 2018 2:21pm

Timothy Dwyer Nobody can know or fathom the loss of your children. It is a club that no mother wants to join. Im 80 years old now and my husband died 2007. I had 8 sisters and one remaing survivor. If I was to describe me in one word it would be LOSS. I live alone in the mountains at the edge of a forest. I have 3 cats. Three have gone to the rainbow bridge and I still cry for my loss of my beloved fur babies. My life is lived as a hermit to a great degree. Most of my friendships are online. At this age you become quite invisable.

Rosalind Wilson Oct 9, 2018 2:11pm

I found your article so very relevant. I have two children of mine that died. My little one was almost 3 years old and my only son was almost 20 years old. At that time I was a member of the church and the condolences received were horrendous. May I share a few with you and your readers? Here's the number one BIGGEE. God wanted them more than you. He's in a better place...I wanted to scream BULLSHIT! Here's a few other gems. Well at least you have two more live children. Another cretin asked me if I was praying for my sons safety? The list is long but I really try to put those remarks to sleep, forever. Deborah, I also lost my little girl to death on December 24th many years ago.

Suzy Que Sep 22, 2018 1:51am

Good suggestions.

Dr. Sandi Sain Sep 18, 2018 10:52pm

My understanding is that it wasn’t “I’m sorry” that the writer was choosing to update it was the phrase “for your loss” & that it didn’t allow for a more sincere, open Dialogue.

Rebecca Burton Sep 18, 2018 10:37pm

I understand what you are saying and have wondered myself about this phrase as it can sound insincere. As another commenter made the point we can't know what the sentiment and feeling behind it actually was. My issue is with the terms passed away and lost. I hate them with a vengeance. If I hear the expression on telly or radio I can be heard saying 'died' loudly instead of whichever offending phrase. Why the problem with calling it what it is. It doesn't make it any less painful to say they passed away. It's almost worse as not acknowledging the nub of the reality properly, I'm my view.

Lora Cavallaro Aug 22, 2018 1:24pm

I have thought about these words and really find them meaningless. They are like words that mean it could be that you are at fault. So they should not be used. I feel your loss and give you my condolences, I have you in my thoughts and prayers. Please know we are here for you in any support or need.

Donna Veiock Aug 10, 2018 10:58am

Some of the language used by others to convey condolences has always made me uncomfortable. Saying someone "passed" is currently popular. Passed what? A kidney stone?

Patty Shaffer Aug 10, 2018 4:54am

Having just watching my sister die less than a month ago and then in less than a day later my dear neighbor died, this aticle seems so insignifisant in the realm of dealing with loss. Any heartfelt term or gesture is all that is required to convey sympathy to someone hurting. Trying to dictate the correct thing for people to say makes the the true emotional connection seems forced. Please just let people react naturally the way they feel comfortable. Not everyone is eloquent especially in awkward or sad situations.

Felicia Dale Jul 24, 2018 10:54pm

I really, really liked this post and it hit a lot of key notes for me. I shared it on Facebook because I have a LOT of friends, besides myself, dealing with deaths in their families and circles of friends right now. One dear friend wrote this in response: "This article isn't bad, but it does omit a couple of things. One is that sometimes, people in grief just don't want to hear anything. Not, "I know something of grief," not "I'm here for you." In this case, more valuable would be, "Do you need anything from the store?" or "Can I run and put gas in your car?" From my own experience, these are things that are helpful, and have nothing to do with the grief itself, because no one can help with that, and no platitude or well intentioned comment is going to change that. The other thing I would've liked to see in the article is that, once you've made the offer, if the person doesn't take you up on it, drop it. Don't keep on about it. Believe me, it'll be remembered and thought of as a kind gesture, unlike comments like: "You'll get over it," "It gets better," "You should get professional counseling or a support group," or my personal favourite, "I'm thinking you need an intervention". Those comments do nothing but insult the person's grief and belittle it." Another dear friend said to me, when we were working together on a song to be recorded that had been written to honor the death of a mutual friend's father, asked me what I thought of the song. I thought it was a fantastic piece but, not being a song writer, asked her why she wanted my opinion. "Because you're an expert in grief right now," she replied. My mother had died a little while before this and I was deep, deep in mourning. I could barely sing any songs let alone this one. Her comment brought me to tears, not only of grief, but of gratitude for her recognition of the state I was in. My mother died back in August 2011 and I still grieve for her every moment of every day. She is with me, spiritually, energetically, that's for sure, but the lack of her physical and daily prescence in my life is just... more than I wish I had to bear. But life-long grief seems to be the price of great love.

Andrew Smetana Jul 16, 2018 8:50pm

Ed, I have suffered the loss of two wives both of whom I loved very deeply. Not only do I know the pain and suffering others are going through I feel it for them. It floods back to my suffering and pain. I tell the person wh has suffered this loss that I feel their pain and my heart hurts for them. The pain is so overwhelming its heard to bear at points.

Allyson Matz Jul 6, 2018 12:06am

Anything is better than nothing. Even the “he’s in a better a place” “you’ll see her someday” having lost one of the closest people to me in one of the worst ways possible, saying nothing was worst than saying something. I can remember all the people who said something and I can also remember all the people who said nothing. And I understand it’s okay tragedy is hard to talk about <3

Patty Shaffer Jun 26, 2018 6:04am

If they care enough to show up and extend a hand that's great. If they have a rehearsed line that's fine too. Their presence will be felt either way. If anything after an earlier greeting you could share a sweet memory of the deceased with the person...and that would probably be more memorable.

Jay Bailey Jun 10, 2018 11:20am

I actively try to eliminate using the word ‘but’ in sentences where lm expressing feelings. From my perspective it negates the words and/or sentiments just expressed. Instead l shorten my sentences put in an imaginery fullstop then start afresh. For example ‘Thank you for your offer but’, ‘Happy to help but’, sound like my acceptance comes with conditions. The grief conversation l get totally. My husband didn’t get lost - he died. ‘I’m sorry he lost his life’ sounds like it (ie his life) will turn up somewhere and ergo he will too. I learnt to tune out because I was becoming angry which wasn’t fair to those trying to offer sympathy and it counterproductive to my sense of self.

Jan Airington Rivera Apr 19, 2018 8:51pm

I understand the intent behind this, and I do agree, to a point. “I’m sorry for your loss”, although not disgenuine, begins to sound like a broken record. When I lost my son, as much as I appreciated the thought, those words, by themselves, began to just sound empty. I will add this - After being in charge of a support group for 9 years for parents and families who have experienced child loss, and this is an overwhelming consensus- please omit the “don’t hesitate to call if you need anything”, People going through loss, especially an intimate loss, will not call. Don’t place that burden on them. They can sometimes barely function. Picking up a phone - you might as well ask them to pick up a 1000lb. boulder. DO offer to call them, pay them a visit, Bri g food, help with household chores or errands...or to just sit with them in their sadness. DO mention their loved-ones name, memories, traits. DO send a card on their loved one’s birthday or death anniversary, or call - or just randomly to let them know that they - or their loved one - was in your thoughts. DO take them out to lunch, or for coffee, or a beer, or shopping, or for a walk or a drive. Now their lawn. Bring them lunch. Take out their trash. DO continue to offer care, love, support and REMEMBRANCE 6 months, a year, or 5 years down the line. The bereaved likely won’t call. They likely won’t tell you what they need. Just show up.

Liese Dorno Apr 9, 2018 4:30pm

Thank You!!! I couldn't explain it properly without offending well wishers. Found your post and shared the link on FB. My husband passed away 9 years ago and people still say "sorry for your loss". I want to ask them why they are apologizing for something they didn't do. It's such a cold saying.

Donna Hone Mar 26, 2018 6:45am

I have worked with hospice for many years as an RN. I have always used the word death instead of the common phrases for death. I hate it when people tell children that a loved one is asleep or God needed them more. A refreshing article.

Karen Young Mar 6, 2018 6:57pm

Who the hell are you to tell anyone what to say?! The fact that anyone says anythgin at all, when many humans don't knwo how to deal with the grief of others, says enough. If people want to tell me they are soory or sad for my loss, then I wil welcome this with open arms, as it shows they care about me. So take your pretentious nasty, misguided superior attitude and ...... well, I think you know what you can do with it. Oh yeah, and I have to say, I'm sorry for your loss of humanity towards others.

Stephanie Jonah Jan 8, 2018 6:39am

in judaism, at the shiva, 7 days of mourning, it is customary to actually not even talk until spoken to, and once that happens if it does, it is more clear where the mourner is at and then maybe you might know the right words to connect and comfort

Nancy Molinari Jan 1, 2018 1:44pm

I' like the comments Ed suggested to use, we just need to use the one comment that is heartfelt. i've been through the sudden loss of my sister and attended many wakes as many other people have. We have to keep in mind that people really don't know what to say when someone loses a loved one. They don't have any bad intentions if they say "I'm sorry for your loss", because they are at a loss for words. I know it's cliche, but those are the usual words used. Usually I will tell them I am so heartbroken for their loss and whatever else comes to mind at that moment, to let them know I have empathy for what they're going through. If it's someone I'm close to, I will add, please let me know if there is anything I can do to be there for you. If you say that and they do need you, even if just to talk to, follow through - be there for them! Many times I will call in a week or two to see how their doing and let them know I've been thinking about them and go from there.

Nancy Molinari Jan 1, 2018 1:42pm

Timothy Dwyer You're right, because no two losses are identical. But I would use the word "empathy" in my comment to them. "I'm so sorry and can only empathize with what you are going through". People need whatever they say in a shor concise sentance, not fumble over their words or drag out their comments. This article has some really good things to say as well as what not to say. https://grief.com/10-best-worst-things-to-say-to-someone-in-grief/

Jamie Goodman Nov 2, 2017 1:30pm

Ed Preston Thanks Ed- that article was much more neutral, it offers solid and helpful suggestions but does not go into shaming people who say “the wrong thing.” Approaching things with kindness in our hearts encourages more open consideration and dialogue. Thanks!

Jamie Goodman Nov 2, 2017 1:17pm

Ed Preston As I said above, that won’t work when you don’t know the bereaved, but knew the person who died. I probably won’t “Offer my help or to be there” for someone I don’t know, or gaze meaningfully into their eyes to invite a conversation (I imagine they would find that weird or uncomfortable), but I can go show my respect to them because I cared about their deceased loved one. You’re trying to “one size fits all” this issue, and it simply can’t be done. Your suggestions are good for some situations, and not for others. If you shame people for showing up and saying a platitude, then they might not show up at all for the next person, out of fear of not knowing what to say. If you frame it as a positive suggestion rather than a condemnation in future mentions, I think it will bear more weight.