What To Say When Someone Dies – 8 Sympathy Messages To Replace “I’m Sorry”

I’m sorry. Two words that are automatic in our vocabulary. In a breath, they show up on command just as they have been conditioned to. Without forethought. An attempt to fill the void.

I loathe these two words!

When a loved one dies, these are the first two words that everyone says. I’m sorry for your loss. I’m sorry to hear about (fill in the blank). I’m so sorry. I wish we could erase those two words from all association with death and sympathy messages.

My life has been filled with “I’m sorry!” since Cameron died. When I hear those words I cringe. Responding is awkward. Thank you? It’s OK? I’ve grown to hate hearing those words. This feeling is quite common among people who have lost someone close to to them.

I try to remind myself the words are coming from a good place. People don’t know what else to say to show their sympathy. There is a need to fill the silence, the awkwardness. Believe me people will say some really stupid things in these moments. So we rely on our conditioning, and we automatically say, “I’m sorry.”

In an effort to help you break your conditioning, I’m going to tell you what you should say. Things that any grieving person would rather hear. Take these sayings and use them as your replacement. It takes some practice. I know because I had to break my own conditioning.

sympathy messages

Death is a tough subject. It makes many people uncomfortable, especially when around someone that is grieving. Here are 8 things you can say to help fill the void. Make you more comfortable. Help ensure the words you choose will not unknowingly cause that person more pain.

8 Sympathy Messages To Replace “I’m Sorry”:

  1. That sucks! – You can tone this down if needed. Some people get offended when they hear “sucks”. I actually got a card from someone that said, “How Shitty!” It was probably my favorite. Just know your audience.
  2. My heart breaks for you.
  3. I am so sad to hear
  4. You are in my thoughts.
  5. Sending you hugs. – If you are with them in person there is nothing better than just a silent hug. No need for words.
  6. There are no words.
  7. I am here for you. – Don’t ask them to tell you what they need. Just do for them.
  8. He/She will be missed. – If you knew them, you can talk about what you will always remember. Why you were lucky to know them. These were my favorite.

Since we are talking about what to say, let’s take a moment and talk about what to avoid as well!

4 Sympathy Messages To Avoid:

  1. I know how you feel. – Everyone experiences grief differently. It is best in this situation to just avoid this statement.
  2. This happened for a reason. – Even said in good intentions, anything like this should be avoided.
  3. It will be OK. – This can sound like you are making light of their grief. It will never be OK for them that their loved one is gone.
  4. Religious statements. – Unless you know the person shares your exact beliefs, it is best to avoid religion. After a great loss, many people question their faith. While that may seem like the perfect time to encourage them, it can cause anger or guilt. What may make you feel comforted, may not have the same effect on someone else.

It is always difficult when someone dies. By preparing yourself for what to say to someone who is grieving, it can help make the situation easier. Have you received other sympathy messages that were comforting?

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31 Comments on “What To Say When Someone Dies – 8 Sympathy Messages To Replace “I’m Sorry””

  1. Thank you. Death is so hard, and I never know what to say. “I’m sorry” is a conditioned response, feels canned. What does it even mean? It just kind of pops out because that’s what everyone says, and you don’t know what else to say. My heart breaks for you, and I was so sad when I read about Cameron. These words have so much more meaning and I feel as if I am communicating how I feel about your loss–heartbroken. Thank you for the alternative responses.

    1. Thanks, Sheila. It is hard and no one knows what to say. A lot of people say dumb stuff without meaning to. It just makes everyone nervous so they stick to those conditioned responses. Glad this helped you.

  2. I understand where you’re coming from, but hey? Why is saying “I’m sorry” so bad? Especially if it’s heartfelt? Don’t turn on the people who are trying to help you; changing the words to say the same thing won’t make any difference.

    We don’t deal well with death in our society, we just don’t. And even as we’re grieving, we need to remember that. If “I’m sorry” speaks for that person, we really can’t tell them “that’s just not good enough.” (Myself, I did have to apologize to several people, when I lost it – unfairly – with them.)

    On the other hand, your “messages to avoid” are spot on. But I’d add one more: “You’re strong. You’ll get thru this.” THAT was my bugaboo – hated it. (Which lead to the above mentioned necessary apologies.)

    Know that this is a journey unique to you. No one else can do this, and (more importantly) no one else has the right to tell you how to do this. There is no “right way” to this – whatever well meaning friends & family may tell you. But I can tell you, 10 years plus into my own journey, it does get better.

    Found this that first summer after my husband Frank died.

    At the time, after all the hustle and bustle of the days immediately after, the funeral etc etc, I’d already reached that point (literally within weeks) where so many people will tell you (already!) “That’s it – time to move on!” – I came across this.

    Grief is different for all of us. And no one can – or has the right to – tell you how to go through this process.

    This helped me understand that, and that helped me begin this journey, that we will all go through eventually.

    I have passed this along to friends as they’ve come to this same place, and they’ve told me it’s helped them too.

    How to Grieve
    (AARP – 50 things We Need to Know Before we Are 50)

    “After the first death, there is no other,” wrote Dylan Thomas. That doesn’t mean the ones that come after won’t break your heart, but it’s the first that punches your soul’s passport. Welcome, fellow human, to a different country than the one you woke up to this morning. The air’s different here; so is the scenery. Your knees don’t work so well; in fact, you may want to fall to them.

    For a precious little while, you are allowed to be stunned into silence, or to shriek, or to talk—recounting stories of who he was, what she meant to you, and how it all came to an end. Tell those stories. Some people may try to enforce “The Rules,” to wit: Enough of This Drama Is Enough. Ignore them. Besides, if you treat yourself gently and take the time you need, someday soon you’ll hear the faint but steady voice of your own good sense. Play music you love, sit in the sunshine if you can find some, and if anyone offers you a hand, hold it. Let them feed the cat, too, because they want to be useful. If your good sense does not kick in on its own, help it along: scramble some eggs. It will feel strange at first. But if you pretend that scrambling eggs is normal, eventually it will become normal. Soon you can squeeze some orange juice, too.

    For some of us the stay in this new country seems endless. But time passes, seasons change, and, truly, would those we grieve for want us to mope? Come with me, back into the world. We’ll return to this land someday, all too soon, but in the meantime the garden needs weeding, the bills need paying. Your other loved ones need you. And you, my sweet friend, you could use a shampoo. —Larkin Warren

    1. I guess for me, I have always felt like “I’m sorry” is said with pity in their eyes. Empathy feels better than pity…so it can vary based on how someone says it. I’ve never lashed out at anyone for it, I just cringe inside. It’s similar to the way you hate when people tell you that you’re strong, you can get through this. I’m so glad you found the passage you shared and quickly realized there’s no time limit on grief. You don’t have to ever get over it as long as you continue living the best life you can. Many hugs.

  3. Oh, thank you for this. My significant other, the one I hoped to grow old with, died suddenly due to heart disease on July 9, 2017, he was 58. I found him a few minutes after he had passed and tried with everything I had to revive him. And let me tell you, that sucked, and I relive the moment far too often. The “I’m sorry” is still so hard to take, I always say thank you, which seems so lame, since I’m not thankful he died. I should say “me too”. And I heard the phase “you’re so strong, you’ll be fine” by a woman who thought she was saying the right things, but he wasn’t even cold yet. And the “he’s in a better place”, which is nice, I’m glad he is, but seriously, he wasn’t in pain, he probably would have preferred to stick around a bit longer.

    I do have a couple of pets, but otherwise I live alone, I come home to an empty house, I sleep in an empty bed, I cook a meal for one, I shop for one, I have no one to tell me I’m pretty or to dress up for. I’m really trying to find my silver lining. I have good days, but sometimes the effort of having a good day will send me in a downward spiral. My family doesn’t live close by and my only friends were “couples friends” or his friends, so the loneliness can really be a weighty problem. I recently started reading Oprah’s “The Wisdom of Sundays”, and it really gave me a boost, but every boost ends with crash. And I was doing pretty good until I read this, and now I’m balling my eyes out. Darn. So much just bubbles up and needs to come out. Gawd.

    I can’t imagine losing a child, I think my heart would collapse. I was with my mom when she passed, I was with my beloved’s mom when she passed, and I just missed being with Steve when he took his last breath. We all know birth and death is a 1 to 1 ratio, but there’s nothing about this that gets easier. I think of people in war torn countries that witness death and destruction on a scale I can’t even imagine, how do they go on?

    Thank you for listening (reading) peace out. Jenny

    1. Jenny, That’s exactly how I feel about “I’m sorry!” I give the same lame response and it just feels weird. Have to say I agree on “you’re so strong” and “he’s in a better place”, too! They just don’t feel good to hear. Nothing about this journey gets easier. The only people that get it are the people that have experienced loss like this. Sending you a big hug!

    2. Dear Jenny, your heartfelt words and honesty around the loneliness you feel since loosing your significant other was deeply moving. I came on the site to find some help in what I could say to someone who too has just lost their significant other under the similar circumstances – a heart attack (age 67)and no earlier warnings, and had been well (or so it was thought). Thank you for what you wrote, and especially for what you wrote too about the “I’m sorry”.

      Sending hugs to you, and hope…for that ‘silver lining’. Eileen.

    3. Jenny, Oh my ! My husband also named Steve died oh Heart attack! We we’re having breakfast ( i’d Been mad at him ) He fell on his stomach and I couldn’t get him turned over( he was 250lb) I tried n tried !!! Just as I got him turned help came but not in time. I can’t get past this guilt !! It’s been 4 years. June last year was our 50th Wedding Anniversary. I too just wanted to grow old together. He was 68 and I had just retired too. He was my balance and now I am so lost ! Do not know who I am anymore! I am going through the same things . Feeling so alone . I think he’s in a better place is the worst!!!! Or at least he didn’t have to suffer!!! He’s gone and that’s the only thing that matters to me. Thanks for listening.

  4. I get the I ‘m sorry part too. After my husband’s death, I was ready to scream. But what I hated MORE, was I am sorry for your loss! I felt like had been the most irresponsible wife ever. It was like I put him somewhere and couldn’t find hiim.
    Geez,I didn’t lose him in the middle of Target!!! I know exactly where he is, my heart, my children’s faces and the Atlantic Ocean.
    He had a sudden heart attack and his doctor said to me , he is in a better place, I replied, what the fuck was wrong with where he was with me!! He didn’t mean to be unsympathetic but not what I wanted or need to hear. Hugs

  5. Thank you for doing what you do, it is so cathartic…❤
    I was wondering if you might shed some words of wisdom in regards to my question. This November shall be my daughter’s suicide attempt anniversary and by the glorious grace of God, she survived and is thriving, beautifully! Is it okay to feel as if even though I have her still, for those sickening, heartwrenching seconds that I thought I was losing her, I feel as if I wasn’t allowed to grieve, almost… I still hurt I believe because, I haven’t really had closure, does that make sense?
    Most cordially, TracyW

  6. Reading this I was brought back to the days, weeks, months, after I lost my beloved sister. So many people say the wrong things to a grieving person, just because they don’t know what to say. Your article echoed many of my thoughts and feelings. I have become much more attuned to what to say and how to act when someone I care about loses a friend or loved one.
    Your words were right on point.
    Thank you. We’ve never met, but we’re bonded spirits, so I’m sending you a big, warm, enveloping hug.

  7. I, too, “lost” my husband in 2017, but I hate to use that expression. It sounds like I misplaced him. After almost 55 years of marriage, I’m still adjusting to being just “one.” My family and friends have been terrific, so that helps a great deal. However, I don’t like to say, “It gets better,” because it doesn’t; you just get used to it. I can’t even imagine your pain when your child died, because that’s got to be the worst loss anyone has to endure. I will add you to my prayers, if that’s okay, asking our Lord to continue to give you strength, as He has done for me. Thank you for sharing your grief and also providing such valuable suggestions to all of us who will eventually have to comfort friends and loved ones when they are experiencing grief.

  8. No one mentioned the words …..sympathy & condolence i.e. “You have my deepest sympathy” , “My condolences to you & your family”.
    Another choice of mine: ” I will always remember (him/her) with a smile.”

  9. Dearest Emily, Thank you for the great alternatives to the “I’m sorry” as i sit hear and read the comments and your replies, I hope you know, really know what kind of a blessing you are to others. You my love are a special kind of soul. I’m sure Cameron was a very special soul also. His memory is so honored by the works you do with others. God bless and be with you.
    Prayers for you always, … Traci

  10. You hit the nail on the head. If I hear one more “I’m sorry” or “That’s how it’s supposed to be, even if you don’t understand it” and “how are you?” I have actually gotten to where I say I’m not well. I’m a total wreck. How do people think we are? We are in Grief, we are in shock, we are at a total stand still with the world and sometimes it feels like you can’t go on. It’s tragic losing a family member or loved one can be too much and people saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t cut it. Sorry isn’t even a big enough word to cover our pain and suffering.

  11. Huge Hugs to You. Life will never be the same we just learn how to cope one minute at a time. Thank You for the blog post

  12. My MIL had a child drowned at the tender age of 8 years old. It was 1971 and he was referred to as “mentally retarded”, it is now believed however that he suffered from a form of Cerebral Palsy.
    Amongst the well well wishers, she heard a few times, “at least it wasn’t one of your ‘normal’ children.”
    Of course, “I know how you feel” and “you need to move on” we’re common.
    Really? She was cooking breakfast and had left him upstairs with his 12 year old brother.
    Perry slipped down stairs, used a broom, and slid the chain to unhook it. He went out to see the new dog on the other side of the fence. He upturned a bucket and stood on it, presumably to get a better look at the puppy.
    Apparently the bucket over turned, he fell and hit his head on the concrete, and somehow fell in the deep end of the pool.
    He was in there just long enough he couldn’t be revived. The guilt she felt, as well as his older brother was unimaginable. So never tell someone you know how they feel. My husband is 62 years old now and still carries that broken heart with him.

  13. When my mom died an old friend friend commented “the people we love the most are the ones we miss the most….we have been so lucky to have known and loved her.”

  14. I have to respectfully disagree with you. I lost my son 2 years ago and I think “I’m sorry” is a perfectly apporpriate thing to say. It’s short, to the point and true. And as far as I’m concerned a response of ‘thank you’ is also perfectly appropriate. Frankly I have appreciated anyone’s willingness to acknowledge my loss however they can, and yes even with a simple “I’m sorry”. Much better than people who see me coming a do their best to avoid me because they don’t know what to say, or act overly cheerful to me pretending that the loss doesn’t exist.

  15. I have found that I really like when someone tells me a story or a memory of my stepdad. It’s nice to know that someone was thinking of him, or remembered him. That he meant something to someone. He’s the first person I’ve ever lost and it hurts. Someone said earlier, that no one can understand what you’re going through, unless they have lost a loved one too. That’s so true. You just can’t explain it.

  16. I read this , unfortunately in my area of work, we find ourselves having to write and speak condolences to the bereaved. I always hope to find guidance as each experience is so personal (even my own loss can never be used as a measure as grief is so personal)

    Whenever I can, I also try to share a memory or a fondness of a trait of the person who died, “I’ll always remember her exuberant laugh and vibrant storytelling,” “it was wonderful to witness how happy he always was when you were in the room,” and for many who were devoted parents to children riddled with unspeakable challenges, I try to acknowledge what a great privilege it is of mine to witness their devotion and love

    I do often wish them comfort and solace in their most difficult time, not in the way of “you’re strong, you’ll get through this” but because knowing grief washes over you so often in waves … I do truly empathize and wish that they’ll be eventually consoled not just pained by the fond and joyful memories with their loved one

  17. I heard all the cliches’ you mention, including “I’m sorry” and “he’s better off now”. Nothing resonated or touched the pain until a friend I only knew a little well knocked on my door, hugged me tightly and said, “Oh my god, Yvonne, you must feel so lost.” That simple phrase felt like a life line to me, and in her arms a I felt accepted and understood enough to just cry from the depths of my soul. This was the single most healing thing anyone said to me in my early grief. I knew others meant well, and appreciate their efforts. But I really did feel lost, and her words were very validating.

  18. There are no words is perfect!!!

    Losing someone is part of life but yet we still don’t have words in our language that can express that shock and disbelief in a genuine way!
    Also never ask how I am. You will get an honest answer as I don’t care anymore. I will not say I’m ok when I’m not. You will get the honest brutal truth of how I am at that very moment.

    Instead ask me what have you been up to – if it’s after the funeral. Before then I’m organising it and it’s not a great time.

    And one more thing never ever offer help or say if there is anything you need unless you are willing to to drop everything and go to the end of the world for me. Because if I do ask it took me time to ask you. I am in such a terrible place I can’t cope and have come to you. So be there. Don’t say it and regret it. Never say it to fill a void!

  19. Thank you for addressing this topic head on. This should be addressed early on in language arts classes–how to respond appropriately in sensitive situations. This would be so useful in personal and professional life. And now I look forward to reading the rest of your blog.


  20. None of those are preferred by me, especially the ‘thinking of you, or I feel for you kind – thinking/feeling what?! Tell me. It’s shorthand for nothing at all. I would much rather a simple but heartfelt so sorry to most of those I am afraid. But that is me being picky. People do their best so we shouldn’t be judging them anyway I think- what do we say to others? Do I always get it right? Is everyone like me? Obviously not. The only one I would really like to hear from that list is that ……will be missed. With all the judgemental comments it is a wonder people say anything at all and I get why people cross the street rather than speak to me – it’s difficult. No matter what people say it can’t bring anyone back, but at least some people try to connect.

    Those are things you would prefer to hear, but I am not you and how can we all know appropriate responses to all the bereaved people when we are all so different ? We can’t so if they try we must be gracious and just say thank you. In the end nothing anyone says will alleviate our very own private pain .

  21. There is nothing really anyone can say to lessen the pain. Wish they were! Because I could have used them when my son died. I’m sorry, or any heart felt words are fine with me. What is not fine, is words 2 months after the absolute worse thing in your life, is, you’re not over it yet, you’re always crying, go to the bathroom to do that, what’s wrong with you, you’re draining the life blood from me, people avoiding you Coming from your so called friends, your co-works, your boss and family.

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