Losing a loved one is one of life's most difficult experiences, and it's important to be there for those who are going through it. However, expressing sympathy and offering condolences can be tricky. People often worry about saying the wrong thing or making the situation worse.
If you're unsure about how to offer your condolences, don't worry – you're not alone. There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to expressing sympathy, but there are some general guidelines that can help. In this article, we'll offer advice on how to express sympathy and offer condolences in a way that is sincere, respectful, and supportive.
What Is The Definition Of Sympathy And Condolence?
Sympathy is defined as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else's misfortune or difficulties. It is a way of expressing care and concern for someone who is going through a tough time. Sympathy can be conveyed through words, actions, or gestures, such as sending a card or offering to help in any way possible.
On the other hand, condolences are expressions of sympathy and sorrow for someone who has experienced a loss or tragedy, especially the death of a loved one. It is a way of showing support and offering comfort to those who are grieving. Condolences can be conveyed through words, such as "I'm sorry for your loss," or gestures, such as sending flowers or making a donation in memory of the deceased.
What Is the Purpose of Expressing Sympathy and Condolences to Someone?
The purpose of expressing sympathy and condolences to someone is to show them that you care. No one wants to be alone in their pain. Having someone to be there for them during their darkest hour can be of great comfort and relief. Reaching out to a friend or loved one to express your condolences shows that you care for them and that you are someone they can turn to for comfort.
Understanding Loss: What Is Loss?
Loss is when someone loses someone or something very important to them. Understanding loss is essential when expressing sympathy and condolence. You must be able to put yourself in another person's shoes to feel empathy for what they are going through. Although you may not be experiencing loss yourself, or in the same way, relating to someone's sadness gives you a better understanding of how they feel.
Loss can be experienced in a variety of different ways; it's not solely attributed to death. However, the loss or death of a loved one is often the greatest loss we can ever experience. Everyone deals with loss differently, and there is no right or wrong way to feel. It's important to recognize that emotions such as sadness, anger, guilt, and fear are all commonly experienced after loss.
WHAT ARE DIFFERENT TYPES OF LOSSES?
There are many different types of loss that we may experience during our lifetimes. Each of them is unique in their own way but often experienced similarly. Below are some examples of loss and how they may affect you.
Death Of Someone Close
The death of a loved one is one of the most difficult experiences of loss anyone can endure. Loss of loved one can feel like a part of you was taken, a part that can never be returned. There are many emotions associated with the death of a loved one including grief.
Grief and loss coincide with one another, and both are felt when we lose someone near and dear to us. Though many losses may be or feel final, death is the one loss that there is no chance of ever recuperating.
Loss Of A Job
The loss of a job is a life-changing loss that fortunately not everyone may experience. However, for those who do, it can be one of the most stressful periods of your life. Losing a job can mean losing an identity as well as losing one's livelihood.
Our jobs are central to our lives. We rely on them to pay our bills, feed us, and house us. When you job is suddenly taken from you, your entire life is on the line. Depending on your circumstances, a new job may not be so easy to find, making the loss of a job that much more agonizing.
Loss Of A Romantic Relationship
Romantic relationships are special and to some, sacred. Your significant other is often the one person you are closest to. They are your friend, lover, and everything in between. When you lose this person due to the relationship ending, it can feel like the rug has been pulled out from under you.
Breakups are difficult on everyone and take time to heal from. Offering condolences to someone experiencing this kind of loss is common. Most of us can understand what it's like to experience heartbreak and know it's a pain like no other.
Loss Of A Friendship
Though not often discussed, losing a friend can be equally as traumatizing as breaking up with a romantic partner. Platonic friendships can be just as important in our lives as our romantic relationships. Friends are the family we choose after all, and when a close friend no longer wants to be in your life, it's heartbreaking.
Loss Of Limb
The loss of limb is a tragedy that not many people can ever understand. Relating to someone's pain and suffering after the amputation of a limb can be difficult, because many of us will never experience anything similar. However, we can try and imagine how we would feel were we to no longer have use of one of our limbs.
The pain and agony an amputee feel can be due to loss of physical movement, the strange sensation of part of them no longer being with them, and the self-consciousness they feel looking different than others.
Loss Of Home
Losing your home affects every person differently and can happen for people in different ways. Home is where the heart is, but that doesn't mean a physical place you called home doesn't hold meaning. Many people may experience the loss of home when their childhood home is sold to a different family or when they've moved from their childhood town.
Some may also experience loss of home during a foreclosure or eviction, a type of loss that is also accompanied with plenty of stress. Other people may have this experience when they've left their home country to take refuge in another due to war or political turmoil.
What Are The Different Stages Of Grief?
Everyone experiences grief differently and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to how we cope with loss. Getting through grief is a different timeline for everyone, however, there are common stages of grief that most people will experience after loss. Understanding these stages will help you in finding the right words to express sympathy to someone after loss.
STAGE 1: SHOCK & DENIAL
Initially, people experiencing grief may go into a state of shock or denial as they struggle to come to terms with what has happened. They may not consciously or even unconsciously accept the loss and may continue as if nothing has happened.
Characteristics of denial during the grief process may include forgetfulness, lack or emotion or feeling numb, sleeping more than usual, staying busy to avoid processing their emotions, or using drugs and alcohol to escape their reality.
STAGE 2: PAIN & GUILT
As the reality of their loss begins to set in, people may feel intense emotional pain, as well as guilt over things they have done or left undone. This can be the most difficult part of the grief process as the pain of loss will feel most intense.
People experiencing pain and guilt may abuse substances to cope, experience insomnia, feel anxious and have trouble concentrating, they may cry often or isolate themselves from others.
STAGE 3: ANGER
Anger is the stage of grief when people become angry at themselves, at God, and even at the person who has died (or left). Their anger may be irrational or misplaced, but it's another way for someone experiencing loss to cope with their feelings. They may feel anger at themselves or others for not doing more to prevent the loss. This stage of grief is about finding someone or something to place blame on, whether there is anyone or anything to blame.
STAGE 4: BARGAINING AND/OR DEPRESSION
Bargaining is an attempt at regaining control of a situation, typically through negotiation or compromise. When dealing with grief, someone may attempt to bargain with themselves or with a higher power. They may make deals with their higher power to bring back what they lost. For example, they may vow to do something differently (quit bad habits, be kinder, be healthier, etc.) if their higher power will make their pain go away.
Bargaining can also look like ruminating on the past and the "what if's". For example, they may continuously focus on what they could have done differently to prevent their outcome. Ultimately, bargaining is a moot point as often what's happened can't be changed. When this conclusion is made, people often move onto the next stage of grief, depression.
As people move through the stages of grief, they may experience a deep sense of sadness and depression as they come to terms with their loss. Depression often sets in once a person is worn out from tireless attempts to deny, bargain, or place blame on someone or something.
Though depression stems from feeling deep sadness, it is often described as the opposite of feeling. Depression can cause numbness and loss of interest in things you once enjoyed. Some people may turn to substances to cope or isolate themselves from others. Depression after loss can last weeks, months, even years.
STAGE 5: ACCEPTANCE & HOPE
Eventually, most people come to accept that their loss has happened and begin to find hope for the future. Getting to this point is challenging and the timeline may be different for everyone.
Acceptance and hope for the future allows you to move on with your life, regardless of the loss you've experienced. Though some losses will always stay with us, it's important to remember that life goes on regardless.
What Are Some Ways To Express Sympathy?
Knowing how to show sympathy is a powerful way to show support for someone's suffering after the loss of a loved one or a difficult situation. It's important to take some time to reach out and offer words of comfort and understanding when appropriate.
Below are some ways to express sympathy for someone experiencing a loss.
SEND A CARD OR LETTER
A handwritten message shows your friend or family member that you care and want to show your support. If you struggle with finding the right words to offer condolences, sympathy cards are a great option.
Sympathy cards use beautiful language and artwork to convey feelings you may be unable to express in words. Both cards and letters are meaningful ways to show a loved one you are thinking of them during their dark time.
MAKE A PHONE CALL
A phone call is an immediate way to reach out and express sympathy for someone in pain. Loss is a lonely feeling and talking with someone over the phone can help someone experiencing grief and loss feel more connected to you. A simple phone call to check in on your loved one and letting them know you're thinking of them can be incredibly impactful.
SEND A TEXT OR EMAIL
Contacting someone via text or email is less personable but if it's the only way you can reach someone, it's better than saying nothing. Take your time writing your text or email before you hit send. Remember that this is no normal text or email. Be cautious with using text lingo and emojis as they may not be appropriate in this scenario.
VISIT IN PERSON
Visiting your friend or loved one in person gives you a chance to offer physical comfort as well as emotional support. Some people can more easily hide their pain and emotion over phone or text. However, in person it may be easier for them to open up to you about their true feelings.
They will likely appreciate you stopping by and lending an ear or shoulder to cry on. Consider bringing some food, flowers, or other items of comfort such as books or movies that your friend or loved one may enjoy during this time.
OFFER TO HELP
Offering practical help can be very beneficial when someone is getting through sadness and loss. You can offer to run errands, take care of children, or do other tasks that may lighten their load during this difficult time. Offering your time and energy shows that understand what your friend or loved one is going through is difficult and want to help.
SEND FLOWERS OR FOOD
Flowers and food are often appreciated as a way to show your sympathy and support for someone who is in need. Flowers are beautiful to look at and may brighten your loved one's mood, even if only for a moment.
Food can be a source of comfort for someone dealing with difficult emotions. It can also be helpful. Many people experiencing grief and loss may forget to eat or not have the energy to cook for themselves. Bringing them prepared food is one less task they need to focus on alongside their grief.
PROVIDE EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
Being there for someone in their time of need is invaluable. Offer to listen and be a shoulder to cry on. Be sure to maintain good communication by checking in with your friend or family member regularly, even if they don't reach out first. Sometimes just being there for someone is the best way you can help in these kinds of situations.
SEND A MEANINGFUL GIFT
A thoughtful gift can show that you are thinking of them even when you are unable to be there in person. Sympathy gifts can be anything from self-care items to memorial gifts like keepsake jewelry. These gifts can bring comfort to your friend or loved one and will remind them that they are loved.
What Can You Give As Sympathy Gifts?
Sympathy gifts can be a thoughtful way to express sympathy and provide comfort to someone who is grieving. While there is no wrong gift to give, certain items may be more meaningful depending on the type of relationship you have with the recipient.
Examples of sympathy gifts may include:
KEEPSAKE JEWELRY FOR SYMPATHY
Keepsake jewelry such as cremation jewelry, thumbprint rings, necklaces made from ashes, and photo engraved jewelry can help a grieving person cope with their loss. These jewelry pieces incorporated elements of the deceased to help the grieving person feel closer to them. Offering condolences by gifting keepsake jewelry is a beautiful way to show how much you care.
SELF CARE PACKAGE
Self-care often goes by the wayside when you're dealing with loss. However, taking care of yourself is more important than ever during difficult times. Gifting your friend or loved one a self-care package that includes items like comfort snacks, nice smelling lotions and soaps, face masks, or a cozy blanket can help remind them that their health and comfort is important.
DONATIONS IN THEIR NAME
If someone is experiencing loss due to an illness or tragedy, you may consider making a donation in their name to a foundation that helps others in similar situations. In this way they can feel as if the death of their loved one made a difference in some small way.
Condolence gifts can be anything meaningful to your friend or loved one during their experience of loss. The type of gift you give may depend on the type of loss your loved one is experiencing. All-in-all, a condolence gift is meant to give someone hope and brighten their mood even just the tiniest bit.
Other examples of condolence gifts could be flowers and candy, memorial photo album, or even a paid for weekend getaway.
What Do You Say to a Person When You Are Trying To Express Sympathy and Offer Condolences?
When expressing sympathy to someone who has lost someone or something it’s important to remember that your goal should be to offer compassion and concern for the bereaved. Showing that you care and are available as a source of support is what matters most in this difficult time.
Finding the right words to offer condolences isn't always easy. Instead of trying to find the perfect words, simply let the bereaved know that you are there for them in their time of need. They may not feel like talking in detail but just being present is helpful enough.
Below are ideas for a polite way to express condolences and sympathy for someone's loss.
ACKNOWLEDGE THEIR LOSS
Your friend or loved one has just lost someone or something very important to them. While you may want to avoid talking about their loss to prevent further pain, it's much more helpful to acknowledge their loss in a polite way.
You may say something to the effect of, "I'm sorry for your loss, [the person's name] was a wonderful person," or "I'm sorry this has happened to you. Your pain and grief are normal and I want to be here for you as best I can".
Acknowledging their loss validates their feelings and makes them feel heard and seen.
SHARE MEMORIES WITH THEM OF THE DECEASED
When expressing condolences for someone who is experiencing the death of a loved one, it can help to share how much you will miss the person who passed away or even mention a fond memory you have of them.
Any simple, silly memory you can think of will be meaningful for the person grieving them. During this dark time, your friend or loved one will want to hold on to any memory they have of the deceased. Sharing your memories with them will help keep the deceased's memory alive. It can give even the tiniest bit of hope to your friend or loved one who is grieving.
OFFER YOUR SUPPORT OR HELP
Grieving is physically and emotionally taxing, meaning things like self-care, chores, or childcare can be neglected or become more of a challenge. However, grieving people will rarely reach out for help, even if they need it. Offering your help and support to your grieving loved one can be a great way to express your condolences.
Keep in mind that most people don't want to be a bother and may at first decline your offer of help or support. Instead of saying, "I want to be there for you. How can I help?" say, "I want to be there for you. I'm coming over tomorrow to help you with laundry," or "I know what you're going through is difficult. I'm going to pick up the kids from school this week so you can rest."
Showing your friend or loved one you care for them can be more powerful than saying it.
What Are Some Things To Avoid Saying When You Are Trying To Express Sympathy and Offer Condolences?
When trying to express sympathy and offer condolences, it is important to be mindful of what you say and the way you word your message. While your intentions may be sincere, some phrases can unintentionally cause more harm than good.
Here are some things to avoid saying when you are trying to express sympathy and offer condolences:
You may mean well by saying things like "He/she is in a better place," or "everything happens for a reason," or "don't worry, you'll feel better soon", but these cliches don't mean much to someone experiencing the pain of loss. Oftentimes these sayings can invalidate their feelings or make them feel less understood.
If you can't think of anything to say, a simple "I'm sorry for your loss" will suffice. Expressing your condolences can be just as meaningful and genuine in fewer words. It's better to say less than risk saying something that might be interpreted in the wrong way.
DON'T MAKE COMPARISONS
When expressing condolences, avoid making comparisons. For example, don’t say, “It could be worse. My cousin lost her job and her house,” or "I went through the same thing, but I didn't have anybody to help me". Instead, say something like, “I know how you feel, and I want to help you any way I can,” or "there are many people going through what you are experiencing. You're not alone and there are people who can help you".
Saying things like this shows that you understand the person’s situation and care about them. Making comparisons may invalidate their feelings or make them feel guilty for complaining when others have had it worse. Everyone feels pain and deserves to grieve in a healthy way.
NEVER SAY "AT LEAST"
Reminding someone that they could have had it worse doesn't help them when they're deep in their grief. Refrain from using phrases like, "at least you got to say goodbye before they passed," or "at least you're young enough to remarry." These phrases, though often said with well meaning, sound insensitive. No one wants to hear that they could have had it worse when they are already feeling their worse.
Instead, you can say "You're strong and you will get through this," or "I know it hurts now, but the pain won't last forever. You will overcome this."
How You Can Support Someone Through Grief: Practical Ways To Help
OFFER TO HELP WITH PRACTICAL TASKS
Offering to help with practical tasks can be of great health to someone experiencing grief and loss. These may include running errands, preparing meals, providing transportation, and helping to organize funeral arrangements. Helping with practical tasks leave more time for the grieving person to focus on their healing rather than the daily stressful chores.
Sometimes all a grieving person needs is someone to talk to. If you want to help your loved one through their suffering, lend an ear. Make time to sit with them and listen to whatever is on their mind. It can be helpful to unload your fears and sadness onto someone else when you are getting through sadness.
Let your loved one speak what's on their mind without passing judgement or criticism. They will be grateful for having someone they can vent to and rely on for sympathy.
ALLOW THEM TO GRIEVE
Be there for them when they want to talk but give them space to grieve in their own way. Check in with them often but don't force them to open up to you if they're not ready. Understand that they won't be themselves for a while and the best thing you can do is be there for them when they need you.
SPEND TIME TOGETHER
When someone close to you is grieving, one of the best ways to show your sympathy and condolence is to spend time together. This could include visiting your grieving loved one at their home or simply taking them out for a coffee or lunch. Letting them know that you are there for them and are willing to listen can be incredibly comforting. Doing activities together can also help distract from the grief, providing comfort.
OFFER TO HELP WITH FINANCES
One of the most meaningful ways to show your support is by offering to help with finances if necessary. Even in difficult times, it can be hard for grieving families or individuals to keep up with bills and expenses. Offering financial assistance can be an enormous relief and a valuable source of comfort.
ENCOURAGE SELF CARE
Self-care often goes by the wayside when we are undergoing intense emotional distress. Grieving people may forget to bathe, eat, or dismiss many of their own needs. Dismissing self-care only worsens their predicament and may lead to more emotional or physical distress.
While getting their nails done, eating a healthy meal, or going to the gym may be the last thing your grieving loved one wants to do, encourage them to do so anyway. Take them out for a spa day or invite them to go for a walk. Anything you can do to get them out of the house and acting more normal will help them through their suffering.
OFFER EMOTIONAL SUPPORT
When someone you know experiences a tragic event or loss, it can be difficult to know how to respond. While there is no single “right” answer, one of the most important things you can do is offer emotional support. This means letting them know that you care and are available to talk if they need it. Let them know you are always willing to talk, text, or meet up when they need a shoulder to cry on.
OFFER TO TAKE THEM TO GRIEF COUNSELING OR ATTEND WITH THEM
Sometimes professional help may be needed to help someone through their suffering and loss. If your loved one is having an extremely difficult time coping with their loss, offer to take them to or attend grief counseling with them. Grief counseling can help them process their emotions and cope with their tragedy.
There are many options for grief counseling including one-on-one sessions with a therapist or group therapy. Either can be helpful for your grieving loved one to talk through their feelings and develop healthy ways to cope.
One important way to provide ongoing support is by checking in regularly with your grieving family member or friend. Taking the time to write a card or call on special occasions like the loved one's birthday, an anniversary, holidays, or any other time they might need extra support can be incredibly beneficial.
Writing messages that acknowledge their loss while also acknowledging that you are still there for them can provide emotional support in times when they most need it. Remember that grieving is a long process for most people. Your friend or loved one may continue to hurt for a long time and following up with them can help them get through it.
Sympathy & Condolences Frequently Asked Questions
How can we show sympathy to someone who has lost someone?
Showing sympathy to someone who has lost someone is important to provide comfort and support during a difficult time. One way to show sympathy is to simply listen to the person and let them express their feelings without interrupting or judging.
Sending a thoughtful message or card can also be a nice gesture, as well as offering practical help such as cooking a meal or running errands. It is important to be respectful of the person's grief and avoid making insensitive comments or offering unsolicited advice. Showing empathy and understanding can go a long way in helping someone cope with their loss.
Why is showing sympathy to others so important?
Showing sympathy to others is important because it helps build strong relationships and fosters a sense of community. When we show empathy towards others, we acknowledge their feelings and demonstrate that we care about their well-being. This creates an atmosphere of support and understanding and can help to resolve conflicts and ease tensions.
Additionally, showing sympathy can improve our own emotional intelligence and enhance our ability to communicate effectively with others. By understanding and responding to the needs of others, we can develop more meaningful and fulfilling relationships both in our personal and professional lives.
What can I do to help someone that is grieving?
Grieving is a difficult process that everyone goes through differently. One of the best ways to help someone who is grieving is to simply be present and listen to them. It is important to let them express their emotions and feel heard without judgment.
Additionally, offering practical support such as cooking meals, running errands, or looking after their children can be very helpful. It is important to avoid giving advice or trying to fix their problems. Everyone heals in their own time, and it is important to respect their process. Simply being there for them and offering support can go a long way in helping someone who is grieving.
What is the etiquette for offering sympathy to someone who has lost a loved one?
Offering sympathy to someone who has lost a loved one can be difficult, but it is important to express your condolences. The first thing to remember is to be sincere in your words and actions. It is also important to offer specific condolences, such as mentioning the name of the deceased or sharing a favorite memory.
Avoid clichés like "they are in a better place" or "at least they lived a long life." Expressing that you are there to support them and offering practical help, such as bringing over a meal or running errands, can also be helpful. Finally, be respectful of their grieving process and give them space if they need it.
How do you respond compassionately to someone's suffering?
When someone's suffering, it's important to respond with compassion and empathy. One way to show compassion is to actively listen to the person and acknowledge their feelings. It is also helpful to offer words of comfort and support, such as "I am here for you" or "I understand how difficult this must be for you".
You can also offer practical help or resources, such as connecting them with a therapist or offering to help with daily tasks. These actions can also show compassion. It’s important to remember that everyone experiences suffering differently, so remember to be sensitive and respectful of their individual needs and boundaries.
Helping Them Move Forward
Expressing sympathy and condolence is a difficult yet important task. It’s important to be sensitive and sincere in your communication to show support and understanding. Use words that are comforting but also meaningful and avoid empty platitudes or clichés.
Acknowledge their feelings of sorrow, grief, and sadness while offering comfort and hope. Finally, determine what you can do to best help your friend or loved one in their time of need.
April 13, 2023 by Jeri K. Augustus