On this day in 1980, John Lennon was killed in New York. What words can express what a loss this was?
When something so tragic happens, what can you say?
It’s hard enough to know the right words to say in a horrible situation and if you are learning English then the difficulty, awkwardness and uncomfortable feeling can be even worse!
So, if the worst thing happens, here is what you can say to people to express your sympathy about someone passing away.
When you want to offer condolences (an expression of sympathy, especially after the death of a person’s relative or close friend) there are some fixed/standard expressions that fit the situation. You can use these in writing or in speech.
Expressing Sympathy: WHAT TO SAY
The aim is to show that you share the feelings of the bereaved person and you can also feel the hurt of the loss of their loved one
I’m sorry for your loss: This is a cliche, but it’s short and let’s the person know you care, if you find it difficult to speak
I can’t imagine what you are going through: This is what the person feels, ‘no-one knows how bad this is’. So, it shows that you are empathetic and care.
He/she was a wonderful person: What more can you say? This shows that you acknowledge the person has gone and it’s a huge loss.
We are all going to miss him/her so much: This phrase expresses that the person meant a lot to many people which can be comforting to the bereaved person.
You are in my thoughts: This let’s the person know that you are aware that it’s an emotionally difficult time and you care for them
It could be a good idea to talk about a happy memory for you of the person that died. Don’t try to be funny, but sharing a nice memory might lighten the situation.
Also, just saying ‘I love you’ can work wonders. Grief can be very lonely, so the most simple expression of love reminds the person that they are not alone.
Expressing Sympathy: WHAT NOT TO SAY
It’s not easy to talk to someone who is recently bereaved and people are really afraid of putting their foot in it (making a mistake) and saying the wrong thing which would make matters worse. So, always speak with love, honesty and compassion. A word of warning: Don’t pretend that the person hasn’t died and do not try to make out that the situation isn’t terrible.
But above all, do NOT say the following, even though you may have heard them before/seen them on TV or films…
I know how you are feeling: No you don’t. Even if you had a similar thing happen to you, the circumstances would have been different and you are a different person with different feelings
How are you holding up? The only answer is “Really f@#king terrible!”, so don’t ask this.
Don’t worry, you’ll get over it: The bereaved person at this point thinks they will never get over it and that is the furthest thing in their mind right now.
They are at peace now: Maybe the person who died or the person left behind was/is not religious.
He/She is in a much better place now: How do you know there’s a heaven with an eternal afterlife? The person would rather have their loved one with them here, rather than in some other place anyway!
At least it was quick and they didn’t suffer: There are no “positives/advantages/upsides” to death, so don’t try and be the happy person in the room.
At least you had a chance to say goodbye: Same as before – do not be the person saying “always look on the bright side of life”.
Now you can start moving on with your life: Even if the person went through a long painful death that was incredibly hard for everyone to bear, people need time to grieve and acknowledge the loss and pain.