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.”

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