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Notes for the Journey
Thoughts on living and dying, written by an end of life doula

What should I say when someone dies?: 3 steps to a heartfelt online condolence

Updated: Jul 22, 2023

Sound off if you’ve ever been mindlessly scrolling and suddenly found yourself coming face-to-face with news of a death.

You may have felt a mixture of sadness, compassion, etc. immediately followed by “what should I say?” Looking over memorial messages and condolence responses online, I can see we need some help.

Read on for a condolence formula, a recipe to follow next time you’re crafting a response about a death. Instead of hovering over your keypad, struggling to find the right words of comfort, just follow these steps to personalize a compassionate, heartfelt message.

Jump Ahead


Yes, it’s hard!

These days, with the increase of our acquaintance circle across the county and the globe, the majority of condolences seem to be delivered electronically via text or social media including via memory walls on funeral home pages.

Companies like GatheringUs even specialize in virtual memorial services. The thing is, we all know texting is infamous for misrepresenting emotions and you can never be totally sure how the grieving person is going to receive your words.

Almost everyone, at some point, has had a hard time responding to a death announcement and conveying the appropriate mosaic of grief emotions — this might include sadness, shock, sorrow, compassion, comfort, maybe even anger, relief or humor and more. Is it any wonder, then, that we struggle? First we have to absorb the news, figure out how we feel, and figure out how we think they might feel, then, on top of all that, try and sort all that into an artful collection of words without hurting anyone or embarrassing ourselves. Phew!

As an applied linguist, I specialize in teaching how to have difficult conversations and the good news is that the skill of writing an online condolence can definitely be learned. Keep reading.

Just don’t freeze

First I want to say, don’t let uncertainty silence you because crickets are usually even worse.

Make sure to respond in some way to a death announcement because a less-than-perfect message still accomplishes connection and shows support.

Otherwise, if the grieving only sees a few responses it can feel like no one noticed, like no one came to the funeral. So if you don’t remember the below formula at the moment, still say something (or bookmark this!)

Ready to figure out the perfect response? Let's dive in and look at both what to say and, just as important, what NOT to say.

What not to say

First, let's look at what to avoid.

It is so easy to stumble in the wrong direction, especially when many modern societies have grown away from death (including probably yours which is why you're here).

What do I mean?

Many of us don’t know how to face death because modern medicine, emboldened by our culture of youth, has, especially in many western cultures, hidden death comfortably away. It’s no wonder we don’t know how to respond. However, if you have said any of these “what not to say” things in the past, go easy on yourself - most of us have.

Below is a list of comments to avoid (but remember, they are still normally better than silence.)

Here are a few tips of what NOT to say if you haven’t said anything yet:

1.) Avoid cliches. I get it. You don't know what to say so sometimes you sink into familiar territory. When my sister died, I heard cliches from loving, well-intentioned people. I appreciated all responses but cliches did not bring much comfort. Why not? Cliches often come across as canned and insincere, like you didn’t really put thought or feeling into them. Some examples of cliches are "heaven gained a new angel" and "she's in a better place." So, yeah, you probably don’t want to give the impression that you are lacking in feeling and sincerity.

2.) Don't state your ideas as fact. I heard from distant people, for example, “She was ready to go" and I remember thinking “how could they possibly know that she was ready?” It also can be somewhat upsetting that this person is trying to school the grieving on their own loved one. Another example is, "She didn't want to suffer any more." Both of these examples imply the deceased chose death and chose to leave their family behind, the exact opposite of a comforting message

3.) Don't assume beliefs even if you practice the same faith. Even if you have the same faith, your current understandings might not match up. Afterlife beliefs can change or be challenged at the death of someone you love so, unless you’ve talked about it recently, don’t assume a belief. An example of an assumed belief is "now she's with your parents in heaven" or "your precious grandmother is with the Lord." How do you know where she is? People follow a wide range of after life beliefs. Note that some faiths believe in a purification process such as purgatory, others see reincarnation as the likely next step or entrance into a “spiritual realm” and many other possibilities. When a loved one dies we are faced with some tough questions and emotions so beliefs can become mixed. Regardless of what you think they are “supposed” to believe, your initial response to the death announcement is not the time to try to teach them. Accept them where they are and let them rest their minds in your words. Remember, only offer a belief comment if you have recent confirmation of their belief system and even then, keep it somewhat general.

Also, these kinds of “where is she now” comments imply that sadness is due to a lack of faith instead of a deep loss in our lives here on earth. Like if only you had the faith to believe where she was now, then you wouldn’t be grieving.

People can most definitely have a comforting belief system and still grieve the loss. Those can, and do, co-exist so don’t imply otherwise.


What should we say? Two good examples

Okay, so now we know what NOT to say but what should we say? Great examples of online or texted condolences are not easy to come by, but here are a couple of actual responses that come across as deeply heartfelt comments.

These messages, only a few sentences long, contain no cliches, false ideas or assumptions.

First, I’ll share the two comment examples that are effective, then we will look at what makes them work.

Example #1 — An effective condolence, sent via text (following a recent faith discussion):

“My heart breaks knowing that Lisa is no longer with us. May her soul be at peace with our heavenly family. May God grant you comfort and peace in your memories of your sister. My deepest condolences to your whole family. Lisa's smile was pure sunshine and she will be deeply missed.”

Example 1 is a text I actually received and I can tell you that in the moment of reading it, it just relaxed me, like there was nothing I had to defend myself from or even think about. I could just receive it peacefully. My brain relaxed into it.

Example #2 — Let’s see what example 1 has in common with example #2. This example I found on a Facebook death announcement. The tone is different yet it contains the same effective elements:

“Words can't describe the sorrow we all feel - what a big hole Julie’s absence has left. My deepest condolences to all of us who acutely feel the pain of her loss. Julie and I lived opposite each other in our first year in 1985. What a year that was!”

Looking at these two examples, what do they have in common? Why are they effective? What is the formula?

Why do the examples work?

Brief formula of writing a condolence

  1. Sympathy

  2. Comfort/compassion

  3. Legacy (i.e., a positive bit)

Each element is described more fully below.

In each step, I also offer, under the bullets, other phrases you could use to accomplish the same goal of that step. So, the easiest way to use this formula is to pick one bullet point under each step and tweak them to reflect your intentions and to create a smooth flow.

Make sure to read through to the final secret ingredient which really creates such a comforting finish.

Formula Explanation

1. Begin by expressing sympathy at the news. In the first example, this was expressed as “My heart breaks knowing that Lisa is no longer with us.” In Example #2, sorrow was expressed by saying “words cannot describe the sorrow we all feel — what a big hole Julie’s absence has left”. Here are three more phrase you could use to express this first element:

  • I’m so very sorry to hear this heartbreaking news.

  • My heart is so heavy hearing of Jack’s passing.

  • Words cannot say enough as I join you and your family in grieving the loss of your amazing father.

  • My heart aches for your loss.

2. Next add words of comfort and/or compassion but don’t resort to cliches!

If you do not know their general beliefs, then do not mention a specific afterlife. In example #1, this second step, after a recent faith discussion, is expressed through the words “may her soul be at peace with our heavenly family. My deepest condolences to your whole family.”

Notice how the first part is so close to the cliche “she’s with the angels now” or “he’s with his wife now,” yet it's different. Often, just a minor tweaking of words shows the effort needed to remove it from the cliche category. What's different? Most obviously, example #1 doesn’t state the belief as a fact like the cliche “she IS with the angels” but rather a gentle prayer/wish that “may” she be at peace.

Example #2 expresses this same comfort/compassion element as “My deepest condolences to all of us who acutely feel the pain of her loss.” This is an example of what to say when a belief system is unknown. Here are four more examples of phrasing to use for this step especially when the belief system is unknown:

  • May you find peace and comfort in the beautiful memories of your mother.

  • Sending you and your entire family my deep and heartfelt condolences.

  • I know your grandfather will be deeply missed. May you be supported by his memory through these difficult days.

  • May you and your family find peace as you journey through this difficult time.

3. Finally end with a gentle positive legacy. This secret ingredient really adds the finishing touch. Please notice that this is specifically a "gentle positive" not over the top or exaggerated.

The tone of your entire message should be gentle and soothing so that continues in this step as well. This is primarily the sentence to note a bit of legacy that will remain with you, a very brief memory of that person that you or others will hold dear. If you have a more involved memory, you can go into a full story in a sympathy card — do not make your online comment more than about 3 or 4 sentences total.

Knowing that the deceased lives on in special ways can bring great comfort to the grieving. In our two examples, the writers both indicate they knew the deceased; however, this element still works even if you didn't. In example #1, the texter ends with the uplifting words, "Lisa's smile was pure sunshine and she will be deeply missed." In example #2, the commenter says, "Julie and I lived opposite each other in our first year in 1985. What a year that was!" Specific examples are difficult to give for this step but you may be able to personalize some of these ideas:

  • John's sense of humor will forever live on as thoughts of him bring a smile to my heart in the least expected moments.

  • If the deceased is unknown: Your aunt's smile just radiates from this photo. What a woman of joy!

  • If the deceased is unknown: In reading the comments, I can tell that your grandfather touched so many people with his beautiful love of life. Truly a wonderful soul who I know will be deeply missed.

Sympathy + Comfort/Compassion + Legacy are the three elements of an effective comment via memorial wall, social media, text, or email (and can be expanded in a sympathy card). And to fine-tune your condolence comment, apply these 10 tips. Just know that your confidence will increase with practice.


The Bottom Line

By using the simple three-element SCL formula, you can share sincere and deeply comforting condolence comments with confidence. Note that so many people and online blogs forget the legacy bit, but taking a moment to share their lasting impact on life can truly be a most powerful gift of comfort to the grieving.

We all want to be ready when an online death announcement comes our way. Think ahead now to draft a response so next time you can readily express your compassion, minus the stumbling. By choosing the right words, you can show sincere support and perhaps, you too, can even bring them a moment of peace in the swirl of emotion that is grief.

Go to Gentle Journey to learn more or contact us at gentlejourneydoulainfo@gmail.com


8 comments

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8 Comments


Guest
Jul 22, 2023

This came at just the right time. Thank you for the advice.

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Annice Barber
Annice Barber
Jul 22, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for sharing that it helped you and just at the right moment too. All too often we need to find words of comfort at a death but remembering to include just 3 elements can make it easier to find the right response for next time as well

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Guest
Jul 22, 2023

This is SO timely for me. I was just thinking about what I am going to say to a dear friend who recently lost her husband in an accident.

such great advice, thank you!

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Annice Barber
Annice Barber
Jul 22, 2023
Replying to

I'm so glad that reading this helped you find the words you needed to comfort your dear friend in her profound loss.

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Not long ago, I received a text from a friend informing me that her father had died. Normally, I’m not good about what to say and then often end up waiting too long. So, I used this advice to offer my condolences.

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Annice Barber
Annice Barber
Jul 15, 2023
Replying to

Thank you for sharing your experience. It's so common to have that reaction of not knowing what to say. It can so much easier just to remember to include just 3 key elements. I'm glad it helped you offer a compassionate response to your friend.

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Guest
Jul 14, 2023

Great advice! You presented this so thoughtfully. Thank you!

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Annice Barber
Annice Barber
Jul 15, 2023
Replying to

I'm happy to hear it clicked with you. It seems to be such a common problem. I tried to really think through how to make the difficult task of offering condolences more manageable.

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