Headbloom Blog

Death and dying in America (Part 4)

Often we are unsure how to express sympathy at the death of someone, especially which words to use. Below is a list of ways to show support and caring at the time of a loss, including appropriate expressions in English.

Sympathy cards. Mailing a note or card with an expression of sympathy is always an appreciated gesture. Even though electronic media is efficient, do not send words of condolence via email; this is considered much too businesslike and impersonal. You can find cards to express condolence at virtually any grocery store, department store, drugstore, or greeting card store. Some have religious messages, others have simple poetry, while others are left blank inside for you to write your own personal message.

Most funeral homes have websites with information about the deceased: the obituary, the date and time of visitations and the funeral, and the name of any charitable organization the deceased may have specified for a memorial contribution. Additionally, the websites often have a place where friends can leave messages of sympathy. This may be seen as too impersonal by older generations but completely appropriate by younger generations. Certainly words of condolence can be entered on a website in addition to a signed card in the mail.

Words to express sympathy. Remember, your job is not to remove the grief that someone is experiencing after the death of a loved one. Your job is just to communicate that you care about them and feel bad about their loss. There are many ways to express your sympathy. The simplest and most common saying is, “I am sorry for your loss.” (This means I’m sorry you lost someone special in your life.)

You may also say, “You are in my thoughts during this difficult time.” If you are religious, your words can include, “You (and your family) are in my prayers.”

A more formal expression would be, “I wanted to express my deepest sympathy to you and your family.” You could add, “My wife (husband) extends her (his) condolences as well.”

It is also appropriate to add a sincere compliment about the deceased:

  • I respected your father very much. He was such a gentleman.
  • Your mother was one of my favorite people. She was always so kind to me.
  • Everyone at work loved your husband; he cared about every member on his team.
  • I will remember your aunt as one of the strongest people I knew.
  • Your grandfather was such a funny guy. He could make anyone laugh at his jokes.

Your words needn’t be long and flowery, but if there is a short, heart-warming story to share, you might tell it: “I’ll never forget the day your wife came to work with….”

You may also extend an offer, “Please let us know if there is anything we can do.” Because the bereaved may not be able to think of something, you could suggest specific ways you are able to help: mowing the lawn, going grocery shopping, picking up the kids from school, feeding the pets, shoveling the sidewalk, or doing errands. Since the family may not be very focused or organized, you may wish to repeat the offer a while later—if you are sincere in your intent to help them out.

Food. Because the grieving family will be busy with various arrangements and occupied with their grief, they may be unable to shop for groceries and cook meals. One very helpful and appropriate custom is to take food to the house of the family. This might be a coffee cake or pie, or it could be a main dish that is easy to warm up and serve (for example, spaghetti or a casserole). So that the family does not have to worry about returning dishes to you, it is thoughtful to send the food in disposable containers if possible. Taking something tangible like food is a sign of caring and will be greatly appreciated by the (hungry) family.

Flowers are a beautiful way to express sympathy. They can be ordered over the phone and delivered to the funeral home by the local florist. (Be sure to have the name and address of the funeral home ready when you make the call.) The flowers do not have to be expensive or showy; simple arrangements are fine, perhaps including the deceased’s favorite flower (if you know it). There is no particular flower or color of flower which represents death in American culture. Sometimes the family of the deceased requests that a charitable donation be made in lieu of flowers (see below). This will be specified in the obituary.

Memorial contribution. Often the deceased will have a special organization that he/she was fond of and will specify that group as a possible recipient for donations in lieu of flowers. (You will read this in the obituary or at the funeral home on the small stand with the registry book in the visitation salon.) The organization might be a church where the deceased was a member, a medical support organization like Hospice of Michigan or the American Cancer Society, an alma mater’s scholarship fund, or charities like the United Nations or Leader Dogs for the Blind.

These donations are not expected and are completely optional. The amount of a memorial contribution is not revealed to the family, only the fact that you made a donation in memory of the deceased. You may take an addressed envelope from the funeral home and mail in your donation, or if you take your checkbook to the funeral home, you can leave a check in an envelope while you are there.

Attendance at the visitation or funeral. One way to show your caring is to spend a few minutes at the funeral home during the visitation period. (This was described in Part 3.) You do not need to spend a long time there, but your presence will be appreciated by the family (and recorded in the registry book). If you attend the funeral, you may also attend the interment (burial) ceremony and the wake, but if your time is short, you may leave after the funeral.

Follow-up time. A week or two after the funeral, the family is still grieving, but the busy days of funeral arrangements and writing thank-you notes is over. It is during this time that friends and co-workers should remember to check in with the survivors. This could include a phone call, invitations for lunch, or simple inclusion in an outside walk or trip to the mall. These gestures help the family members feel they are not forgotten and will help return some normalcy to their lives.



Neutral expressions:

to die

  • His aunt died of cancer.
  • My father died in an automobile accident.
  • How did she die?
  • I don’t remember; she died when I was very young.

to be living
  • Are your grandparents still living?

to be deceased
  • All of my mother’s siblings are deceased.

Polite expressions:

to pass away

  • She passed away more than ten years ago, and I still miss her.

to pass on
  • How old was he when he passed on?

to pass
  • After my great-aunt passed, no one hosted family reunions anymore.

to be gone
  • All of my grandmother’s siblings are now gone.

Too blunt to use:

to be dead

  • Are your parents dead?
  • Her husband is dead.

Alan Headbloom