When Someone Dies, Do NOT Say, “I Know How You Feel.”

Never tell a grieving person, “I know exactly how you feel”—because you don’t.

You really don’t.

Each survivor’s grief is as unique as it is personal.

Picture your coworkers, classmates, relatives. Do you relate to them identically? I don’t mean answering to the same boss, the same teacher, or the same great-grandma. Do you interact the same with everyone at work? Do your classmates get along equally? Do your siblings share identical relationships with your parents (or your children with theirs)?

Of course not.

Although every grieving parent commutes to work inside the Office Building of Loss, and each shares a suite with at least one other person, each must employ individual skills and equipment to complete assignments for their tyrannical boss.

Even though parentless children enrolled in the Boarding School of Bereavement attend classes together, all must write long-answer exam essays in the unfamiliar tongue of separation and carry their own belongings from dormitory to desk day after day.

While surviving spouses are forcibly relocated to the lonely—yet far too crowded—neighborhood of Death Did Us Part, each widow(er) must maintain sole upkeep on a once-shared mortgage, even while working within walls irreparably damaged by the move.

No matter how many coworkers, classmates, or relatives you share with the bereaved, grief is non-transferrable—one size does NOT fit all.

After my husband died, I knew that people expressing condolences intended support and comfort; I appreciated their efforts. However, each time yet another well-meaning person said, “I know what you’re going through,” I wanted to scream: No, you DON’T know (… you’ve never married, your spouse is alive, you divorced your husband, your third-cousin’s death isn’t the same as my husband’s …) because you have NOT been through THIS!

Ironically, most other widows (and widowers) did NOT say they knew how I felt! Instead, they acknowledged the uniqueness of my grief—and their inadequacy to comprehend it.

  • X and I raised our kids before he passed, so I can’t imagine what you’re going through.”
  • “I feel for you. We said our goodbyes before Y died. I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you.”
  • Z and I weren’t married as many [or as few] years as you and your husband were, so I can only guess how you’re feeling right now.”

Those who verbalized their lack of understanding made me feel best understood.

How to Say, “I’m Sorry”

  • A coworker answers the phone, then slumps across his desk, sobbing.
  • Your best friend calls at 3:27 a.m., so distraught you can’t understand her.
  • A friend of a friend posts a Facebook status that cannot be right.
  • Paramedics heft a loaded stretcher into the ambulance, and it leaves your neighbors’ driveway with no lights, no sirens, and no hurry.
  • A church lady asks which day you can take a meal to the Jones family.
  • A relative’s phone call starts with “I don’t know how to tell you this …”

Sound familiar? These may reflect the way(s) you’ve already learned (or will someday learn) of a death in the family of someone you know. When this happens, what should you say?

“I’m sorry.”

Too simple? No, it’s not! When the newly bereaved is still in shock—which can linger for months, by the way—he or she will scarcely comprehend more. If three syllables seem inadequate, feel free to add another one or three:

“I’m so sorry” or “I’m so very sorry.”

Another variation may backfire. “I’m sorry for your loss” seems the “proper” thing to say if you don’t know the survivor (or the deceased) particularly well. Be aware that it may sound insincere to those who grieve.

After my husband died, I heard “I’m sorry for your loss” from all the business-of-death professionals in the first:

  • minutes (hospital staff and medical examiner’s assistant),
  • days (mortuary and cemetery staff, funeral attendees),
  • weeks (representatives of every company we had accounts with),
  • and months (IRS, police, Federal Trade Commission, Social Security Administration, and credit bureaus—after a heartless creep filed a fraudulent tax return using my late husband’s SSN!).

During that awful first year, after hearing it countless times, I began thinking, “Thank you, but you’re only saying it because you’re supposed to.” Now, after nearly three years, when someone learns I’m a widow and says, “I’m sorry for your loss,” I hear only kindness in the expression.

Whether you say it in person, on a handwritten note, over the phone, by text or via social media message, “I’m sorry” will reach the newly bereaved soul quicker and with a lighter touch than any other phrase. Depending on your relationship, consider adding a hug, bringing a meal, or donating another act of service along with your “I’m sorry.”

How I Learned What to Say When Someone Dies

People die every day, but learning the right thing to say when death happens to someone you know is not an everyday skill.

Death isn’t the only devastating loss we humans experience, but it’s among the hardest to handle. Don’t get me wrong — I’ve been greatly blessed by the people in my life, and I know many who’ve experienced far more losses than I. But I’ve lost my own share to the Reaper: my grandparents, my mother, a cousin, a nephew, a brother-in-law, my father-in-law. My husband.

When I became a widow, I began noting the broad range of “right” ways others offered condolences. Some were perfect, as if Shakespeare and Freud stood on the comforters’ shoulders, whispering expertise in their ears. Their consoling compassion flowed as naturally as their breath.

Other friends’ imperfect offerings were just as welcome, even delivered with stammering hesitation or stumbled wording. I saw (and heard) that they were anxious enough for my well-being to overcome their own discomfort, and I loved them for their awkward attempts. [See posts filed under “What to Say.”]

I even appreciated the efforts of those whose comfortless condolences fell flat. I assumed they meant well, no matter how poorly they delivered. They tried, and their ineffective cracks at compassion showed they cared, no matter how clueless they were to how their words sounded.

I also encountered undeniably “wrong” things to say to someone grieving a devastating loss. A few of them belonged to the “meant well” group, but others were so selfishly stated that not even Pollyanna could find anything “glad” about them. [See posts filed under “Don’t Say This.”]

As I’ve met with other widows and widowers and with bereaved families whose losses varied from my own, I found my experiences weren’t unique. Wonderful, caring friends, relatives, and coworkers want to uplift their friends and colleagues in their losses. Neighbors act to show kindnesses that reach beyond tangible, outward gestures, touching the troubled souls of those nearby, easing the burdens of the bereaved.

And a few well-meaning folks, perhaps like you, could use concrete advice as to what to say and do — and what NOT to say and do — for a person you know who has lost a loved one.