Expressing sympathy to the bereaved

How do you say you’re sorry for another’s loss? Words often seem an inadequate container to hold the enormity of loss. We struggle with phrases and expressions that will best communicate our sympathy. Some tips might help make this formidable task easier. What you write and how much depends on your relationship with the deceased and the surviving family. There is no right or wrong length or word count. If you were particularly close, a longer letter would be appreciated.

Choose good letter paper or a nice card. This is something the family might want to preserve, so let them see the effort you put into it. It shows how much you care and communicates your concern in a meaningful way. It’s a good idea to practice-write the letter before you decide on a final draft.

Instead of shying away from writing because you don’t know what to say, consider the following:

  • express sympathy clearly. “I am so sorry for your loss…”
  • offer words to show how the person who has passed touched your life in some way. For example, you could say “I’ll never forget the time Janet stayed late at work to help me with a project I was struggling with.”
  • offer comfort to the grieving. “I know how inadequate words might be at a time like this, but I wanted you to know how deeply I feel for you.”
  • share memories you made with the deceased. “When Bob heard how much I loved country music, he went out and bought me a CD of my favorite singer.”
  • express his/her most favorable qualities. “I’ll never forget what a team player John was. When one of our guys called in sick, he took on an extra load just so we could make the deadline.”
  • make a specific offer of help. “I would be more than happy to walk your dog in the evenings.”

These letters are often read and reread by the bereaved, the comfort and wisdom in the words cherished long after the last guests at the funeral service have departed. It reminds them of how loved they are, and affirms that they’re not alone in their grief.

Some Starting Phrases

  • Words can’t even begin to express…”
  • I was very sorry to hear of…”
  • My deepest sympathies for your…”
  • I’m deeply saddened by…”
  • “Please know that my deepest sympathies are with you…”

Condolence Phrases

  • May the beautiful memories you made together comfort you.
  • Remembering your family and praying for your peace.
  • I’m/We’re holding you in my/our thoughts and prayers.
  • Do take comfort in knowing how loved Kathy was and how many lives she touched.
  • We take comfort in knowing that Bill is no longer suffering.
  • We don’t always understand why things happen, but we’re with you and holding your hand through these dark times.

What to Avoid

  • How are you?
  • What would you like me to do?
  • Please call me if you need any help.
  • I know how you’re feeling.
  • Connie is in a better place.

A sample condolence letter:

“Dear ……,

I want you to know that you’ve been  in my thoughts since the passing away of Melissa. No words can make this pain go away. But know that you’re surrounded by people who care.

Allow me to support you through this difficult time. I would be happy to come over and take care of the laundry, babysit, or help with the memorial service.”

A sample letter to condole passing away through an illness:

“Dear ……,

I cannot even begin to imagine your grief and I’m terribly sorry for your loss. Even though we know death is coming, it is never easy when it actually happens. Clarence’s fight is finally over and it is time to rest. Please let me know how I can best support you through this diffcult time.”

A sample letter to condole a sudden death:

“Dear ……,

I’m deeply shocked and saddened to hear about Jim’s unexpected passing. I’m so sorry for your loss.

It’s hard to know why things happen the way they do–sometimes with no warning. What I do know for sure is that I’m willing to stand by and support you through this difficult time in whatever way you need me to.”

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10 thoughts on “Expressing sympathy to the bereaved

    • Wonderful! Thanks for stopping by, Judy. Yes, it’s all about creating a community of people that support each other during such a challenging time.

  1. Hi,
    I’m having trouble with correct grammar for the phrase “you and your family’s loss” or is it “your and your family’s loss.”
    Thank you!

  2. I just wanna ask if what is wrong with this phrase of condolences when my niece said to the bereaved family “Happy Condolences” is this correct or grammatically wrong? Thank you very much!

    • It’s neither wrong nor correct. We normally associate the word “happy” with pleasant experiences. A condolence is about death, not usually a happy event. In that respect, it may not be the most appropriate expression. I don’t know how old your niece is. Children don’t realize what they’re saying, so they can be forgiven. But we can teach them about appropriate expressions. I hope this answers your question.

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