What to Say When Someone Dies (Plus 8 Phrases to Avoid)

By: Alia Hoyt  | 
A wife consoling her husband by placing her hands on his shoulders
Expressing your deepest sympathy with someone who's feeling immense emotional pain is difficult for all involved. thianchai sitthikongsak / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Be present for your grieving friend without needing to say anything, as sometimes silence is the most supportive.
  • Share fond memories or stories about the deceased to bring moments of joy to the grieving person.
  • Avoid cliché phrases like "Everything happens for a reason" or "He's in a better place," and instead offer genuine support and practical help.

Losing a loved one is always excruciating, and many struggle over what to say when someone dies. The last thing that most people want to do is say the wrong thing to a friend or family member and make a terrible situation even worse. Sadly, certified grief counselor Simone Koger says, "There is nothing perfect you can say to a loved one who is experiencing a loss. Because at the end of the day, what they want is for that person to still be alive."

However, it’s still important to learn how to appropriately navigate these situations, because everyone will encounter grief at some point and needs to respond with empathy, says licensed clinical social worker Eileen Moran. "When that’s shown in a genuine manner, those who are bereft will always remember your kindness," she says.


Understand the Value of Being Present

The most effectively supportive friends often don’t need to say anything at all. Meg P., who lost her daughter at birth, says, "My friends who stayed with me when all I could do was cry, who didn’t need to say anything or have me say anything — they were my saving grace."

Elizabeth N. of Decatur, Georgia, who lost her father and aunt, says that in times of grief, people need to simply "shut up and show up."


What to Say When Someone Dies

First of all, whenever you deliver condolences in person, be sure to make good eye contact, says psychiatrist Joe Gardzina with ADAPT Programs. Offer a gentle hug if the relationship calls for it, and follow up on any offers you make regarding help or checking in.

"When someone trusts you enough, you need to not just use words, but action!" Gardzina says. Here are some constructive options on when you're looking for the right words to express sympathy.


1. "I remember this one time when —"

When a person is wrapped up in grief, it can bring a moment’s joy to hear a new story or anecdote about their beloved. Ellen M. of Thompson’s Station, Tennessee, said her loved ones soothed her soul when people fondly remembered her father. These recollections were as short and sweet as, "He had a great voice," or "He always was so welcoming."

Krystal D. of California’s San Francisco Bay Area said that when her father died, conversations like this helped her to realize that, "I was not alone in missing him, loving him or appreciating him. Others did too, and others wished he was still here too."

So if you’re on the way to a funeral or other memorial service, take a moment to reflect on what made the deceased person special in your eyes, then share it with the bereaved.

2. "Tell me about him."

If you care about the grieving friend but didn’t know the deceased personally, this is a very thoughtful option. Ellen M. says that people said things like, "I wish I’d met or known him. What’s a favorite memory of yours with him?" She says that gesture helped her to know that the person "cared enough to emotionally sit with me in my sadness."

3. "I’m so sorry for your loss."

This might seem trite and tired, but in reality it’s sincere and effective. Meg P. said the basics like "I’m so sorry" and "We are here for you" were the best words she heard.

4. "I’m just checking in to see how things are going."

Most of the time the person grieving is surrounded by people and activity and such until after the funeral, and then a lot of that comes to a halt. This can be a jarring experience for someone who is lonely and sad.

Krystal D. recalls that a friend called her regularly just to check in during the weeks and months after her father died. "Sometimes we didn't even talk about my dad, but having someone show their love with their time and outreach was very comforting," she says.

One way to do this is by telling the grieving person that you will check in with them at a specific time or date. Koger says this "allows less of the burden of planning on the griever and allows you to connect to see how they are doing [and] if they need anything in a less daunting way."


What to Avoid Saying to a Grieving Person

Feeling wary about expressing even heartfelt sympathy is understandable, but the worst thing a person can do is fail to acknowledge the death affecting a bereaved person. Pretending that the grief isn’t happening will only make your loved one feel alone in a dark time. That said, do try to steer clear these misguided tropes if at all possible.

1. "Everything happens for a reason," or "It was God’s will."

These are two very similar phrases that people commonly utter when they aren’t sure what to say. Meg P. heard them both a lot when her daughter Johanna was delivered stillborn at full-term following an umbilical cord accident. Well-meaning friends and family routinely said things like "God wanted her in Heaven more than here," or "Everything happens for a reason."


Meg P. recalls, "Basically, lots of things that pinned tragedy on God’s will." For someone who is reeling from shock and sadness, statements like this are counterproductive. "This phrase seems philosophical, but it can also be invalidating to someone who has just lost a loved one," Koger says.

2. "Try to be strong for the kids."

Life goes on even in the midst of tragedy. However, that doesn’t mean that people have to march on unaffected. Melinda J. of Australia recently lost her father, and she said that "Try to be strong for the kids" really hit her in the worst way.

"In such a situation, it froze me because I felt as if I was denied the right to come to terms with my feelings, even if they mean devastation, plus my motherhood got somehow involved," she explains. "As if, being a mother, I was supposed to be denied as a daughter."

3. "He's in a better place," or "She’s not suffering anymore."

Jennifer M. of Americus, Georgia, heard these a lot when her sister died of cancer. "Most of the people saying that she was in a better place did not even know her. She was spiritual but not religious, and their idea of where she was going was not the same as hers," Murphy explains.

Indeed, statements like these, while intended to provide comfort, can be dismissive of the tragedy, says Rachel Nithya Karat, a psychologist at Allo Health. "It's important to respect the grieving person's beliefs and refrain from making assumptions about their perception of the afterlife," she explains.

4. "Everything will be okay," or "Time heals all wounds."

Anyone who has been through a serious loss knows that eventually the scab of grief usually starts to heal, but it is rare that everything goes completely back to normal. “Nothing will ever be the same,” says Ashley F. of Lawrenceville, Georgia, whose mother passed away in 2020.

Vered D., of Memphis, Tennessee, concurs: “At that moment of intense loss you don't want to think about the future or about the fact that eventually, you will move on, at least to some extent.”

5. "Let me know how to help. I'm just a phone call away."

No matter how well-intentioned this is, it places a burden on the bereaved to think of things they need help with. Instead of offering ambiguous help, be more specific.

Suggest setting up a meal train for a couple of weeks so that they don’t have to worry about making dinner, or providing food for the post-funeral reception. If they have to travel for services, offer to mow their lawn, check the mail, care for pets and offer other practical support of that nature.

All of these gestures lighten their load and make the grief a tiny bit easier to bear. Koger suggests putting together a care package of helpful or comforting items, like tissues, a journal and a candle.

6. "At least she lived a long life."

Death is a loss at any age, and while it may be extra tragic when a young person dies, it’s still very normal and expected to grieve deeply when a beloved older person passes away.

"Although it's true that a long life is often seen as a blessing, this phrase may minimize the grief someone feels after losing a loved one," says Karat. "It's better to acknowledge the pain they're going through rather than trying to find silver linings."

7. "He wouldn’t want you to be sad."

No matter how true this statement probably is, it still isn’t very helpful. "This is invalidating the person's grief, [and] while it may be uncomfortable to see someone in active grief, it is not their job to make you feel comfortable," Koger says. Tara H. of Sacramento, California, said that, after losing her father, statements like this left her "feeling rejected, alone and unseen."

8. "I know how you feel," or "I know when I lost my [insert loved one here]; my experience was —"

The knee-jerk reaction to empathize with someone by relaying your own personal experiences can be difficult to resist. While this might make some people feel like they aren’t alone in the experience, it can also minimize what they’re going through.

"Even if you’ve experienced a similar loss, everyone’s grief journey is unique and deeply personal," said Ramiro S. of Argentina. Instead, focus your sympathy on the person who is actively grieving and how you can support them.


What to Write in a Sympathy Note

Sometimes you won't be able to express condolences in person. Whether you send a sympathy card in the mail or have funeral flowers with a short note delivered to the bereaved, reaching out to show how much you care about other people's emotions during trying times will mean a lot to them. Here are just a few ideas for condolence messages.

  • "You're in my thoughts as you celebrate [name's] life."
  • "Sending you peace and comfort from afar."
  • "My deepest condolences for your loss."
  • "Our family wishes you hope and healing when you're ready."
  • "Remembering [name] with love and thinking of you in this difficult time."
  • "[Name] was such a wonderful person. I remember when [fond memory]."


Frequently Asked Questions

How can cultural differences affect expressions of sympathy?
Cultural norms and traditions can dictate how condolences are expressed, such as preferred phrases, physical gestures and rituals of mourning.
What are some supportive actions to offer instead of words?
Practical support — such as helping with chores, cooking meals or simply being present — can be more comforting than words alone.