What to Say When Someone Dies (And What Not to Say)

what to say when someone dies

Many people struggle with what to say when someone dies.

Nathan’s father passed away a couple of months ago, after battling an awful disease for three or four years. They had the blessing of knowing in advance what was coming; they had the awful burden of knowing in advance what was coming. Recently, he and I were talking about what people say when your loved one dies. I asked for his experience on the subject. This is what he wrote …

My first thoughts on what to say when someone dies were based on the biblical accuracy of things that are said after someone dies. Do people really believe what they say? If they do, where did they get those philosophies? I’m not suggesting there is a list of approved biblical phrases to use in this situation, only asking that we consider why folks craft and continue to perpetuate these flawed notions. I believe there is a danger turning faith into fairy tale for our own comfort. At the same time, it may help us to approach someone with biblical truths after we understand their line of thinking.

What Not to Say When Someone Dies:

“God must really think you are strong because we know God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

“Your dad is in a better place.” (While I believe that my father is in a better place, this is along the lines of “He’s not suffering anymore.” It’s typically applied as if heaven is the default for anyone who wasn’t too bad.)

“Heaven has another angel.” (Whoa—God needed another angel?)

“He’s looking at you right now.” (How could heaven be free of tears and pain if they were watching us?)

“He’s still with us, watching over us.”

Without much more than a “Sorry for your loss,” a lengthy monologue on his/her own experience with loss. As selfish as it sounds, I’m grieving now and I don’t want to hear your story.

“I know how you feel.”

“God has a reason for everything.”

“You are in my thoughts.” (I never quite understood why this is supposed to comfort.) (Although, this is often shorthand for “You’re in my thoughts and prayers.” So, I wouldn’t be too rough on someone who says this.)

What to Say When Someone Dies

For the most part, I didn’t find words to be the most comforting offerings. Actions such as hugs, meals delivered, prayer together or a listening ear were helpful to me.

“I love you.”

“I’ll give you a call in a few days.”

“Can I check on you later this week?”

“I can only imagine what he is experiencing right now.” (This one came from
a dear friend who absolutely knew of Dad’s relationship with Christ. It
turned my focus from my loss to Dad’s gain. It might not be the same for
everyone.)

“I’ll be praying for you and your family.”

“We are going to bring dinner by. Is Wednesday OK?” (Very few people that
I know will respond to the standard, “Is there anything I can do?” but
almost no one can turn away a specific helpful gesture that has a time
stamp on it.)

More on What to Say When Someone Dies

“Take care of yourself.” (It was comforting to know that someone was
concerned for me in all of this. It would be easy to slip so deeply into
my grief that I neglect proper nutrition, sleep or even my mental health.)

“We are deeply sorry about the loss of (insert name here.) As you grieve, know that we are remembering and honoring him/her.”

“I’ll remember your (____) in many positive ways-with a big smile and a great sense of humor, always great with a story.”

“I’m sure your heart is aching. We want you to know that we are here for you if your need anything. Expect us to check in soon.”

“Sorry for your loss. I celebrate the life of (___) and am mourning him/her with you in this trying time.”

“Our hearts go out to you and your family. Although I don’t know exactly what to say, I want you to know that I am with you in thought and pray for comfort and peace as you remember (insert name here.)”

“Praying for peace to bring you comfort, courage to face the days ahead and loving memories to forever hold in your heart.”

“(Name of deceased) will remain in our hearts forever. May you be comforted by the outpouring of love and support.”

““Words fall short of expressing my sorrow for your loss. I am deeply sorry to hear about the passing of (name of deceased.)”

“I can’t imagine the sadness you must be feeling from your loss. May the love of those around you help you through the days ahead.”

After the Funeral: What to Say When Someone Dies

Some of the most meaningful words came weeks after the funeral. Lots of people are thinking about you in the first days. Those who are truly grieving with/for you will continue to show sympathy/empathy for some time.

Stories about Dad: I already know how special he was to me. It was uplifting to hear about the significance of my father to others. Those stories carried significance. 

This is a hard time for all of us—hardest of all for the family, of course, but it’s difficult for friends who come by the funeral home or church and often stand in line. Earlier this week, friends told me they stood in line over two hours at the church for the opportunity to speak to the grieving widower for 30 seconds and to give him a hug. My hunch is the grieving family cares far more about the fact that friends showed up at all than the specifics of what they said.

Many people struggle with what to say to the grief-stricken. For instance, in two days, I will be doing the funeral of the mother of a long-time friend who was almost 102 when she died. Friends showing up may wonder what to say to the family. Do they grieve in the same way as my friends early this week, where the wife was in her 70s and died somewhat unexpectedly? My answer is simply, grief is grief. A longer life just gives family and friends longer to love them.

In all cases, “I’m so sorry” accompanied with a hug is the gold standard.  

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Joe McKeever
Joe McKeever has been a believer over 60 years, has been preaching the Gospel over 50 years, and has been writing and cartooning for Christian Publications over 40 years. He lives in New Orleans.

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