I learned a long time ago that when you want to express your condolences to someone who is grieving a death, simple is best. Especially if you don’t know them all that well. Or you aren’t familiar with the situation.
Keep it simple. “I’m sorry for your loss” is fine.
Now, it never felt fine before, mind you, when I was saying it to people who were sorting through devastating grief. It never felt like enough. Or like I was doing the right thing by only saying that to them. Being a words person is part of my identity, and I therefore have put extreme pressure on myself all my life to make words do what they weren’t intended to do.
But somehow, I managed to follow the rules anyway. “I’m sorry for your loss.” Left it at that.
I think I knew somehow that grief is sacred ground. And that adding more could be a kind of heresy, a desecration of a moment that humbles everyone. It’s not the time to be cocky or try to impress someone when someone has died. It’s not about you. It’s a moment bigger than you or the person who is grieving.
And there are no magic words. Very little of what anyone says actually helps you when you’re grieving. Loss is hard no matter what people say.
And it wasn’t until I was on the other side of it, when I experienced a personal loss that shook me to the core that I understood the flipside:
On the grieving side of things, well-meaning improvisations more often than not make the experience harder.
When you’re mourning, it’s shockingly easy to be offended. Or at least it was the case for me. Typically, I’m very laidback, flexible, and forgiving of other people.
Not when I was mourning. Oh no. Instead, I found myself extraordinarily sensitive. Easily ticked off. I suddenly had zero chill. In fact, there were only two people who said more to me about my grief, about the death, that didn’t annoy me. Profoundly.
One knew me better than anyone else, also personally knew the person I was grieving, and had a general habit of saying less than normal even in good times (a bit of an undertalker, underexplainer). We talked about the person who had passed and our memories of him.
The second had actually worked with hospice and let me know early the less glamorous sides of grieving that she’d experienced. She talked mostly about her experiences with grief, in response to anything I shared. But in a way that didn’t feel like she was giving me advice or telling me how I should feel. More of a guided tour of the crazy ass things she did when she was grieving. This made me laugh, feel less alone, and be more patient with myself as I did odd things in the early days.
Neither of them annoyed me.
Anyway, it occurred to me that there are probably only a few people in any given grief situation who are any good to talk to about it — if you’re lucky. I have been grateful to have two, in my own case. (And that’s without hiring a therapist, something I’m open to after I take a month or two to see what my autonomic nervous system naturally does in the short term without hashing it out with a professional.)
Odds are that you are not that person to someone else. And if you are, you’ll know. Interestingly, although I am also grieving, I am that person in this precise situation to someone else. I am also supporting another family member through this loss in the way that I can. This is part of the strain of the moment; my own grief is devastating, and yet I am still doing some emotional labor during this time in order to support someone else. However, while I find it exhausts me, it also makes me feel better to be able to help someone else who is hurting, so it’s a form of medicine. Albeit exhausting medicine.
For everyone else, there’s a prime utility to the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss.” It says, “I care about you and care that you’re hurting, but I don’t want to say anything dumb.”
That care is genuinely appreciated by those on the other side, even if those words don’t seem like enough to you, on your end. You don’t have to say more. The more you say, the more we feel like we are required to respond to you. And that itself can be a burden. Because we don’t always want to talk about it. And even when we want to talk about our loss, we don’t want to talk about it with just anyone. And unless we ask you directly, we really don’t want your advice. It’s actually really annoying. Even if you’re trying to be helpful. Even if it sounds profound to you or worked in your own case.
You probably don’t realize, but people who pop up like you do actually give advice that conflicts with one another, you see, and it’s hard no matter what we do.
I have a way forward through this, and it’s up to me to figure it out. (There are tons of resources about grief that I can turn to when and if I want to see how other people handle it. If I’m looking for options. But it’s still up to me to choose, and I can find those when I’m ready, either online/in books or by approaching people I seek out.)
Say “I’m so sorry for your loss” and move on. If you have to say more, tell them that you’re around and will listen if they want to talk. But give them an out. Tell them it’s fine if they don’t want to talk to anyone.
If you’re one of the right people to talk to, the grieving will seek you out. If they want to talk. And that’s a big if. Maybe they don’t want to talk to anyone.
If you’re not close though, if you’re not in the habit of talking to them on deep subjects, “I’m so sorry for your loss” is probably absolutely the maximum you should say to a grieving person. It lets them know you care. And stopping there means you don’t say anything dumb. (And trust me; you don’t know what will sound dumb or offensive to the grieving person, unless you know them extraordinarily well, because it sometimes takes us by surprise, what irritates us, because grief changes the parameters.)