Updated: May 24
These days the vast majority of death announcements are sent electronically via social media or text.
The immediate challenge for the friend, then, is deciding what to say in response.
We all want to give a comforting reply and show we care.
If you’ve googled “what to say when someone dies” much, you'd find that many, many blogs try to address this question and a bunch of them offer awkward or incomplete wording.
That’s largely because I haven't found any other blogs on this that are written by communication expert or from the gentle and compassionate point of view of a death doula. That’s just the combination of expertise offered here.
Read on for 10 tips to writing a comforting online condolence comment, so the next time you come face to screen with news of a death, you’ll have the tools to write a deeply comforting response.
1) Use the SCL formula to compose the most effective condolence message. Sympathy + Comfort/Compassion + Legacy (more on legacy below)
Legacy is the secret ingredient because it can offer such comfort and hope
2) Don't forget legacy! Legacy is the secret ingredient because it can offer such comfort and hope. In fact, legacy work is often a major focus of doula work because it is so powerful. Do make sure to take the time to say something of what specifically you or others will carry on from them in memory or action.
3) Consider personalizing the message or comment with the griever’s name and/or the name of the deceased. When I received a text after my sister’s death beginning with “Dear Annice,’ it added such a lovely personal touch. I felt seen and supported. Also, using the name of the person who died can be a great comfort, as well, since it gently personalizes your words and keeps the memory of the deceased active. It's just really good to the grieving to hear their loved one's name. However, keep in mind, that in some cultures saying or seeing the name of the deceased person is not welcome.
4) Try to go through a draft or two and then put it aside for 15 minutes or more. Remember to pause. When you come back to it, you will see it with fresh eyes as you decide on your final wording.
A grieving person especially is living in an emotionally raw time and very much can’t be put on hold.
5) If the person suffering the loss can see that you viewed the online message (such as with Facebook messenger), then you need to reply when you first open the message, even if it is just to say “I am so very sorry to hear this, My heart breaks for your loss.” Say more later that day when you have time to compose your response. It is important to say something immediately if they can tell you saw the message because we all know the negative thought processes that sometimes goes through our heads when a seen text goes unacknowledged. People can think of a dozen negative reasons for not responding to texts and that can overshadow the one “thoughtfully processing” reason. A grieving person especially is living in an emotionally raw time and very much can’t be put on hold.
6) Even better, try to pre-plan your response when you know a death is imminent or when you know someone is in hospice. This way, you can have your response ready when the death is announced and you won’t have to scramble. In the same vein, you can also write multiple condolences to use in response to those with whom you perhaps have less contact. You can save these prepared, yet sincere, responses in your phone so that way you can easily choose one to tweak the next time you are surprised by a death announcement.
7) A short condolence comment can work as well. A short comment can also be effective especially if you work to include the 3 elements, SCL. Here is an example of a short comment that still follows the SCL formula: “I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your beautiful aunt - my deepest condolences. Her powerful legacy in education will certainly live on for generations.” (notice how the emphasizers like “deepest” and “powerful” can pack a lot in a small space). Do note, however, that the compassion/sincerity/comfort goal of a condolence comment generally requires more words rather than fewer. Find the middle ground - not too many words putting too much attention on yourself and not too few words implying lack of effort or care. Generally, aim for about three or four easy to read sentences. Try to vary the sentence length.
8) The right vocabulary for the job is important. To get your message across most effectively, use more intensifiers and more emotive words. This increases both the succinctness and works better to express a level of shock or sorrow that is heard by the grieving as more appropriate and, therefore, more comforting. Notice, for example, the increase in the tone of compassion between “I’m sorry” vs “I'm so very sorry.”
Do not share your own experience with death when commenting on the death announcement or in the early days of grief.
9) You might feel empathy if you have experienced a similar loss and this can contribute so much to deepening your compassion. However, do not share your own experience with death when commenting on the death announcement or in the early days of grief. Remember, now this is about them. In the same vein, avoid being a serial commenter. On one facebook post, I saw a person leave five comments, one after the other, listing the physical gifts from the deceased that the commenter has in their home. Serial comments of any sort put too much attention on their own experience and perspective. Again, remember, it’s about them!
10) This SCL formula can be used in a sympathy card to write a heartfelt message. In fact, the same elements of sympathy, comfort/compassion and legacy carry through all of the levels of offering support to the grieving such as in a phone call or face-to-face at the funeral. The in-person moments are more spontaneous by nature but, at some point in the talk, do try to include all these elements.
As an applied linguist studying the tool of language and as a person who has been on the receiving end of condolences several times, I know from experience and research that this kind of clear direction in how to compose a condolence comment is needed.
Grief is certainly individual and highly varied, but the SCL (sympathy + comfort/compassion + legacy) formula along with these tips offer the best chance of composing a condolence comment to a death announcement so you can expertly craft a response that offers an oasis of restful compassion and understanding in the midst of the early days of grief.