“I’m sorry for your loss.” Say it loud, say it proud.

Speak my name and I shall live forever

This is the one thing in the Top Ten outlining what TO say. Now I am making the sweeping assumption  you are concerned about what to say to the grieving or you would not be reading this blog. If that is not the case, here’s a link to some dancing hamsters, which is probably more along the lines of what you’re surfing the Internet for. But if you’re here because you want to know what to do, this is the number one thing that you must do:

Always acknowledge the death when you see the widow for the first time.

No matter when it happened. No matter how much time has gone by. It doesn’t take more than “I’m sorry”. Practice in the mirror if you have to. But say it. Do not hesitate. Do not avoid it. Do not think that the widow—or the sibling, or the child, or the parent, or the friend—has forgotten for a minute that they’ve lost their loved one. Here it is again. Let’s say together now, shall we?

“I’m sorry for your loss”

It’s all you have to say. In fact, really. It’s all you need to say. Think surgical strike: acknowledge and move on. You can go back to telling the joke about the horse walking into the bar. Or whatever. It does help to have a follow up: “How ’bout them Mariners”. Just go on with whatever you were doing. Or, if you do have something more to say and she seems up to it, tell them a favorite memory. Say why you miss your friend. Share something funny or sweet. But please, my friends, do not avoid mentioning the death. You’re aware of it. They’re aware of it. We’re all aware of it. I promise you that she’s well aware of it and you are not, by any means, bringing up something that isn’t already ringing in her head like church bells. It’s a very big elephant in a very small room.

If you’re hearing about the death for the first time, just say you’re sorry and move on. You don’t need to go on about it. You don’t need to suddenly drop into solemn hushed tones with a mournful face. You can continue the conversation. A few weeks back, I met someone at a party who asked if I was married. No, I answered, I’m a widow. The entire tone of the conversation shifted, you could feel him frantically casting about for what to say after saying “I’m sorry to hear that.” On it went to “What did he die of?” I’m having fun at a party, I certainly don’t need to go into detail about how he died with someone I’ve only just met. Asked and answered. Just say you’re sorry and move on.

Alternatively, I promise you didn’t make her cry. And don’t assume she’s one of those people who “doesn’t like to talk about it”. That might indeed be the case, but if so, it means you don’t need to go into depth of detail about how he died, how much money is left or any of the other things that just dig you further into a proverbial grave (you should forgive the metaphor). Please don’t say you don’t like talking about such things. I think we’re all with you on that one, but come on. I’m not asking you to write a thesis on the subject. I’m asking you to reach out to your friend.

One friend, who was suffering from terminal cancer herself, blurted out “Son of a bitch” when she first saw me after John’s death. It was a heartfelt and genuine response. It actually was quite powerful. She was really pissed that he had died and that was her immediate reaction. For friends like her who acknowledged John’s passing, however they did it was an enormous weight lifted. We could then go on, having both given a nod to this awful detour on life’s path. For those who did not, I never knew whether they were even aware he had died (should I bring it up? Talk about awkward!) or it put up a distance between us that has never been bridged.

I can’t emphasize enough my gratitude for friends and acquaintances who say, even now, I’m sorry for John’s loss. I miss him. The world is a smaller place without him. Good God he was a piece of work. Whatever it was, each person who says it brings John back to life for a moment and brings me closer to seeing that the love we shared lives on, even if he does not. That’s why it is important to say it. I wish I had understood this better for my friends who had lost loved ones before. I would have been kinder to them. I might even have said, “Son of a bitch”.

Time makes no difference, it still matters. Acknowledge it, say you’re sorry for the loss and move on. You’ll all be glad you did.

Born in 1961. Married in 1990. Widowed in 2007. Blogging in 2009.

6 comments On “I’m sorry for your loss.” Say it loud, say it proud.

  • Yes! Yes!! YES!! Every single word! Oh, put this on the front page of every newspaper so people like my IN LAWS that I used to like can read it and do the right thing. I lost my brother three months ago. I makes me cry every day. SAY SOMETHING!!!!!!

  • I just really don’t know what to say to my sister-in-law anymore. It’s not like her husband’s death was any big surprise. She would message me on occasion when he was in the brunt of his illness how miserable HE was making HER life and how grateful SHE would be when it was over. I’m not saying my brother was any piece of cake to live with. I’m sure there were plenty of times when I would have walked out the door, but really, from the get-go it almost always seemed more about her than him and it got to the point of hurting my feelings that she was talking about him that way. Before his illness she didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to him. She could always be found on her computer and chatting with others with a total disregard for anyone and anything it seemed. Now that he’s gone you can’t say anything without it making her mad and all she talks about when she calls on the phone is how she is grieving. That’s all anyone hears. We have all been family for decades and its not like I can just write her off, you know? I sure as hell can’t talk to her anymore. I mean every little thing I say she takes the wrong way. If I take food over there she will think I’m saying she looks horrible and skinny. If I don’t she wonders why I haven’t been by with a casserole. I’m tired of dealing with her. To me all this grief is coming off as too self-centered. After all, it’s my brother who died and I had a loss just as much. We were very very close and I miss him terribly. I probably spent more time with him than she did even. At least talking with each other. She just seems so bitter to everyone. Nobody wants to be around her. Nobody. Thanks for letting me tell you about it. I;m sad to you know?

  • Goodness, that is a tough one. Grief strikes all of us so differently and I think that’s part of what makes us each feel so alone, even though we are mourning the same loss. My brother’s death was a big surprise, but his wife ended up being such a … well, I guess a little like your SIL… that I just had to pull back and pretend she was a stranger (because she couldn’t get any stranger than she was!) who I felt sorry for but didn’t feel emotionally attached to. Losing a sibling is a deeply painful thing, I’m sorry you have this on top of it.

  • Great comments. I think part of what makes this journey so difficult is that virtually every phrasing is “trite” and sounds hollow to someone. It’s hard to know the exact phrasing for the friend you’re speaking to, and if it’s a casual friend it’s that much harder to guess. So people end up saying nothing at all, which is so much worse. I like your emphasis on using the name and saying you’re sorry. That gets to the heart of it and makes it personal, which is really what we’re trying to do.

    And you’re absolutely right. Grief makes us do very odd things and it takes much much longer than we think. Patience and persistence is critical if you ask me. I look back now and can’t believe how I got through those times.

  • Thank you for such a great article. It’s all so true. I have a question about the “at a party” situation. As a new widower I’m finding I don’t know how to navigate it. I am still totally in love with my wife. Somedays I do nothing but cry and other days I have a warm, close sensation which is full of gratitude for the life we lived and a feeling that she is not dead but very close indeed, maybe even closer than when she was corporally here. She is still a vital part of my life whether I am grieving or thriving. So when I meet someone new it is not uncommon for me to mention her early on in the conversation. This immediately drops a bomb and changes the entire tone of the conversation. I realize people are ignorant. When you become a widow/er you realize how many times you were oblivious to a person’s true pain at the loss of a loved one. You just don’t get it until you’ve lived it. So the reality is that the responsibility is upon us to carry the tone because our society has not equipped the common person with those skills. I’ve been trying to find a way to get through that awkward moment.
    Do you have any ideas?
    Maybe you’ve addressed it elsewhere, I’ll read the other blogs.
    Thanks! Don

  • I’m responding to Don’s note of July 25th. I lost my husband of 41 years a year ago – a lifetime, really. I cannot shake the habit of saying “we” and then I didn’t know whether to change it (which then makes everyone feel awkward) or just go with it, so I had to just give myself permission to do what was authentic for me, so I continue to say “we” and “our” and all those words that come naturally to me. I mention him in conversations easily (like, “Oh, my husband used to have a great recipe for that!” or “Randy was always trying to fool me by giving me my favorite wine and telling me it was something else.” If it comes to my mind, I say it, and I’ve been pleasantly surprised to see that it seems to make everyone around me relax about it all. He is still part of my life, my thoughts, and my feelings, and most of all my memories, and talking about him in an everyday way makes me feel a little more whole.


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One more thing…

How else do I know what hurts and what helps? Because not only were they done to me… I learned through this process that I am certain to have done the very same "Don't" things to others at some point along the way. If you're one of them, I am genuinely sorry. I'm trying to learn.