7 meaningful phrases that express condolences better than “Sorry for your loss”

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There’s no doubt about it, condolences can be extremely awkward.

The desire is to share your grief with another who is grieving even more, but that doesn’t feel quite right, does it?

Even in the moment, you feel it: a cringing brittleness rather than the embrace of solace.

The last thing you want to do is add to their pain, whether it be at the actual funeral or even by the time the bereaved have returned to the general flow of society.

So we generally say “Sorry for your loss.”

Yet are there any four words that drill inward deeper and heavier than those four by-the-numbers indicators of discomfort?

The phrase has become so overused there’s no way for it to be heard as anything other than obligatory – a token gesture – and even though it means well, every word is a barb.

“Sorry” sets the bereaved in a guilty space. Even when we’re in the throes of grief, we don’t want others suffering on our behalf.

Sorry is the word we hear from someone who’s wronged us, but in the context of grief, it becomes we’ve wronged you with an emotional burden that you’re politely trying to deflect.

“For” becomes the direct line connecting the bereaved’s dead to your discomfort.

“Your” isolates the bereaved, effectively saying that even though you may feel compassion for them, the true loss is theirs to deal with, not yours.

“Loss.” As if the bereaved could have held on. As if they weren’t able to maintain life for their loved one.

Loss. Someone is gone, and the bereaved cannot get them back.

No matter where they look they will not find them.

Everything that person was is no more.

All connective threads to them? Severed.

The bereaved, as the survivor, is alone.

A universe of hurt in the span of one breath. “Sorry for your loss.”

But in your offer of comfort, you don’t know this because the bereaved person musters a wan smile, a quick embrace, and – probably for one of multiple times before yours – successfully fights back tears in order to say, “Thank you.”

Can we do better? I think we can.

We have it in us to be gentler with our compassion, be genuine with our aid, and be truly unafraid to be there for someone.

What to say in situations where words are simply not enough?

1. I’m here for you.

This can be one of the most powerful things to say to someone who’s grieving. “I’m here for you.”

It doesn’t have to be a grand outpouring of emotion; compassion isn’t like a carnival game of reaching a certain level to ring a bell.

It should project the awareness that you’ll hold space for another, however they need it and on their time, allowing the bereaved to pour themselves into you in order to rest, recuperate, and reclaim a sense of connection after the trauma of a final goodbye.

Accompanied with a touch – perhaps a hug (hugs generally work best), perhaps the gentle taking of a hand, the moment will tell – this phrase tells the bereaved they are not alone…

…not alone in grief, not in their sense of solitude, not in having to shoulder sudden and massive amounts of uncertainty.

When we go through trials, even (or especially) the most common, most inescapable of trials, one that visits the world innumerable times a day, death, the most beautiful things we receive are the reassurances that we are not alone.

2. You have my heart and support.

As with “I’m here for you,” “You have my heart and support” bridges the sudden gulf from community to isolation a death can create in the mind of someone dealing with such a loss.

“My heart” tempers the hard edge of shared grief in a way that “sorry,” “sorrow,” or any variation of that grey, mournful word all fall short of achieving.

“You have my heart and support” isn’t a reminder of loss in the way “Sorry for your loss” is, but a promise of solidarity no matter how grief tries to tear one’s sense of normalcy down.

This is hugely important in grounding a person during a time of personal upheaval.

3. I wish you strength in your sadness.

Sadness is pretty much a given when a loved one dies. It’s as normal as anything possibly can be when a person’s world is turned upside down by grief.

Acknowledging that sadness and giving someone the freedom and space to be sad and display their sadness can be a blessing.

Quite often, the bereaved will feel like they need to remain stoic in the face of their overwhelming feelings. They may not even feel able to cry in front of others.

But this phrase gives a firm nod to them and says that it’s okay for them to be sad; that they can feel that sadness fully.

It expresses your wish for the person to find the strength to face their feelings openly and honestly rather than trying to repress them. After all, out of sight is not out of mind when it comes to the passing of a loved one.

4. Damn, that sucks.

If you’re on reasonably friendly terms with the other person, and you want to say something a little less formal, it’s perfectly okay to express how much the death of a loved one sucks.

Because it does. It really sucks to have someone taken away from you. And that person might simply want someone to acknowledge how much it sucks.

It’s about as honest and genuine as it gets. You’re not trying to compete with them by saying how you “know it’s hard,” because at the precise moment in time, you don’t. And you might never know.

But you can be pretty damn sure that whatever they are going through sucks big time.

5. There are no words…

No words will ever be enough to take away the other person’s pain, and nor she we try to.

And they know this. The various condolences they have received probably haven’t help all that much, so why try to find words when there are none?

Yes, this communicates that you don’t really know what to say, but the bereaved may actually find that quite comforting.

You’re not trying to say the “right” thing or avoiding the subject altogether; you’re simply saying something that they already know full well.

6. {First name} will be sorely missed.

When someone is grieving a person they care deeply about, they don’t want to forget them. They want the memories to live on vividly in their mind.

But when faced with the grief of another, many people avoid saying the name of the one who has died. Instead, they say “he” or “she” or “they,” perhaps to avoid causing more anguish to the bereaved.

Don’t do this. Use the person’s name. The bereaved will no doubt be longing to hear it spoken out loud.

It’s more personal. It’s a reminder that they were a human being with their own history and personality and likes and dislikes and quirks. There was more to them than a simple pronoun.

7. Let me help.

Perhaps this one doesn’t need to be said.

Despite all we do, consoling words will always feel like seeds on concrete under a roiling, grey sky.

We want to merge our hearts and minds with another’s to alleviate their pain, but words in the moment, not even those of poets, never quite feel adequate to the task.

When the bereaved have had time for reflection, maybe poets will do. Poetry can speak in ways the soul understands even when the mind doesn’t.

But there are times when the moment calls for the pure and simple silence of the unspoken entreaty: let me help; allow me to grieve with you; sit down, rest, be.

This can be communicated by a tight hug; by offering a box of tissues when needed without being asked; by helping the bereaved out of their seat or even literally offering your shoulder for their head to lay; there are a million ways to show you are there for someone.

Words bridge a gap. “Deepest condolences on your loss,” “sympathy for your loss,” “sorry for your loss” are mere shadows of what’s in your heart. 

No matter what you decide to say to someone, make sure that it is helpful.

Uplift them, be with them, let them know that you are not just another specter in a pageant of pain, one that begins to disappear to them even before all the funereal social obligations have been fulfilled.

The bereaved will have enough ghosts to contend with; compassion must lead you to be substantial.

It’s never easy finding the “right” words. If it were easy, it’d be meaningless.

It’s said we’re at our most human when we’re sorrowful or joyful; everything in between gets muddled. Words of compassion should express our humanity.

These suggestions may help or may not. They’re not meant to become new rubber stamps in lieu of the ragged, cracked one many of us use now, they’re solely guides.

Life is best when we let humanity, empathy, and a willingness to lift the pains of others from their shoulders guide us, even when only for a moment.

A lot can be done and said in the span of a breath.

Speak comforts and speak them well.

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