How To Express Condolences: What To Say To Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One

Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality.
I Corinthians 15:51-53


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What do you say to someone who has just lost a loved one?  Many of us stumble and find the words, “I’m sorry,” to be a little weak.  As someone who recently lost her mother, I appreciate any words that acknowledge my loss. “I’m sorry” is sometimes the only thing people can think to say.  At least they say something, that’s what matters. But some people manage to present the perfect sentiments, the ones that encircle our pain and give comfort.  Today, I thought I’d share some of the ones I’ve experienced with you, so some day, you can be prepared with more than, “I’m sorry.”

A few weeks ago, my sister and I gathered pictures of our mother for her memorial service. All of us agreed this picture of our parents when they were newlyweds was one of our favorites.  What does it say to you?  We saw their joy and happiness, but my daughter, Heidi, saw more.  If you look closely, my Dad appears to be just putting his arm around Mom as if she’s just entered the room.  Someone else, outside of the picture, is handing her a drink.  Everyone appears welcoming and happy.  Heidi told me this was how she envisioned my mother’s arrival in heaven,  Her husband, there to greet her and draw her close while others gathered around, the joy of reunion in their faces.  I love this interpretation and will never look at that picture the same way again.

My daughter’s thoughts took time to compose and express.  Many people attempt to provide comfort in a card or email which means you can think about your words, first. My best friend wrote a simple, but healing, note at the bottom of the card she sent me:

No matter what the circumstances, we’re never ready to lose the person who gave us life.
May the one who gives us eternal life comfort you.

Simple, but powerful words that express exactly how I felt at the loss of my mother.

Online, I had mentioned to a private group that I suddenly felt like an orphan.  One sweet sister, responded to my pain in this way:

…the scriptures also speak of death as an enemy and an enemy that will be utterly destroyed in the last day. So…it isn’t natural to say good bye. So grieve that you may be healed. The God of all comfort is anxious to heal all your wounds…

She validated my feelings of grief in these simple words.  What a blessing to be given the acknowledgment and understanding of my feelings!

Other people help with poetic statements. When my father passed away in 2005, one of my mother’s friends wrote this on her condolence card.  I kept it because it said so much:

A butterfly lights beside us like a sunbeam.
And for a brief moment
its glory and beauty
belong to our world.
But then it flies on again
and though we wish it could have stayed,
we feel so lucky
to have seen it.

Isn’t that beautiful?  Doesn’t it say what a person is feeling at that moment of loss?  I wish I could attribute this to the poet, but I don’t know who wrote it.  Please tell me if you know.

And I’ll finish with a note I received from the Nurses Assistant Training program at Greenville Technical College.  Their students spend their CNA internship at the nursing home where my mother lived for the last two years. Many of their students cared for my mother during this time.  In a brief, but heartfelt note, the director wrote:

Please accept our sincere sympathy.  Thank you for sharing your mother.  She taught so many of us.

When a parent spends their last years in a nursing home, unable to do much of anything, we often wonder why. How can their life have meaning at this point? What a blessing to be told that your parent still had a few lessons to teach.

The next time you say, “I’m sorry,” to someone don’t berate yourself. It is appreciated, but maybe these examples will help you find other ways to comfort someone at their time of loss.

If someone has found a special and significant way to comfort you in the loss of a loved one, won’t you share it here?  We can all benefit from these pearls of wisdom.


16 thoughts on “How To Express Condolences: What To Say To Someone Who Has Lost a Loved One

  1. So happy you’re able to find comfort and healing in words, written or spoken. And in family and relationships. Give yourself some time–you will get through this. Not over it, but through it.

  2. God heals us in so many ways… through the kind words of friends, beautiful cards, kind deeds… I believe it is that process that allows us the strength to deal with the loss. When everything is over and the sunset comes within you,,, that is the true grief process. I find I say different things based on how well I knew the beloved. Your Mom was just a beautiful person inside and out… and I know she is smiling down from Heaven with such joy and love in her heart that your physical body couldn’t fathom “all that love”
    experience… hugs and love to you…

  3. In the recent loss of my mom, I know what you’re going through. Here’s the sentiment written on one of the beautifully written messages I received. “May your memories of your mother light up your life.

    I’m sorry for your loss, yet praying for your joy just the same. Letting go is so hard. Softness comes in the quiet pauses when we sit & sip in Christ’s prersence. Sometimes we even see a moment when His light shows His nearness in a flash. My thoughts are with you today, dear friend.”

    I pray, Barbara, that you too feel His nearness, and that His arms of comfort wrap round you and give you peace as you grieve your mom’s passing. In the blink of an eye we’ll be reunited. I often wonder what Mom is seeing, hearing, feeling, at any given moment, but I know this, she is rejoicing, reconnecting with family and friends who greeted her at heaven’s gate, and revelling as she looks into the eyes of Jesus … who called her home. Your mom is too.

    Love & Blessings,

  4. Barbara – good advice. I have been through the deaths of both of my parents, my parents-in-law, a sister-in-law, 3 precious sons and a baby great-granddaughter. I know how some of the sentiments shared with me have uplifted, calmed, comforted, soothed and supported me each time. I also know how the total absence of any sentiment from some people felt hurtful at the time. And yet, each time I am faced being the bearer of comfort to a friend or family member who is grieving, I still tend to get a little tongue-tied. You want to say and do so much – bring comfort, healing, hope. SOmetimes it is just being present that makes a difference. I deeply appreciate your sharing your heart here as well as the suggestions

    • Sue, I can’t begin to fathom the depths of loss you’ve experienced, although your book relates the loss of your 3 sons eloquently. I cried with you when I read those chapters. I get tongue-tied, too. That’s why I felt this post might meet the needs of so many and give comfort to those who are mourning. Thank you for sharing.

  5. Barbara, thank you for writing this post. As one who is acquainted with grief through the loss of two aunts, my mother, and my only child in 2009, I know how important tender, comforting words or hugs and hand squeezing can be. I appreciated those who sat by my side and listened. Healing takes time. Far more than we care to admit. Our peace and joy eventually come as we think of our loved ones whole, healthy, and happy in the presence of Almighty God, but we will always miss them.

  6. Dear Barbara,
    Thank you for this most timely I shared it on fb. Only today I spoke to a 16 year old boy whose mother died during Christmas. He said that people don’t understand how much it helps when they come by and just listen. He said that kindness meant everything to him.

    And as for your mother’s whereabouts–you’ll find her somewhere around the throne! Oh hallelujah! Wild horses can’t pull her away!

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