How to express your condolences and sympathy

Being a friend often simply means going to events together, sending memes to one another, and venting about work. Every now and then, it means being there for a friend as they go through some of the hardest moments of their life. 

In 2022, there were more than 38,000 deaths in New Zealand. That leaves behind countless grieving people all over the country every day. 

When a friend loses a loved one, they will need the support and care from everyone around them. The hard part is knowing how to do that in the kindest way, especially if it’s not something you’ve been through yourself. 

Here are a few tips to navigate this difficult time and be the best friend you can be. 

How to start the discussion

Simply getting started can feel like a mountain to climb, but remember that however you phrase it, this opening sentence is not going to be the part they remember. The fact that you were concerned enough to ask, and the ensuing conversation, is what will stand out the most. 

You can decide which starter is best for you and your friendship. Here are a few examples:

  • “I know that X passed away, and wanted to say how sorry I am. Do you want to talk about it?”
  • “I’m so sorry to hear that X passed away. I want you to know I’m always here to talk or simply listen.”
  • “How are you getting on? I’d love to hear some of your favourite memories with X if you’d like to talk about them.”
  • “I know there’s nothing I can say or do to make things better right now. But I am always here to listen.”

What are the right things to say? 

Finding the right words is almost impossible, however, kind words are better than no words at all. 

Kiwi grief counsellor Dr Lois Tonkin shares some sentiments and ideas you might be able to use: 

  • “Whatever you’re feeling, however you’re feeling it, it’s normal and ok.”
  • “Take all the time you need.” 
  • “I wish I had the right words. Just know I love you.” 
  • “I’m thinking of you.”
  • Share stories of your own experiences with the person who passed. These are great to write in condolence cards, so your friend has a written history.
  • If you didn’t know the person who passed, share your positive impression of them that your friend had told you in the past. Such as, “you always said X was the life of the party and made an amazing pavlova.”

Dr Tonkin also shares that rather than expecting grief to fade with time, for some, “the grief and loss remain the same relative size, but the person’s life slowly develops and grows around the loss.”

What are the wrong things to say? 

As it is a highly emotional time, there are few things that are truly ‘wrong’ to say when you are trying to offer your support.

  • “Everything happens for a reason”.
  • Religious sentiments if the person grieving is not religious.
  • “At least you still have X” (for example, if one parent passes away).
  • “You’re still young, there’s plenty of time to meet someone else.” (In case of a partner’s death)
  • “X is in a better place now.”
  • “Don’t you think it’s time you moved on?”
  • “I know how you feel” (unless you have been in the exact same situation yourself).
  • Questions that imply blame.
  • Trying to find the ‘bright side’.

Even if you think something is true, it’s important to remain sensitive to others and their emotions – in situations like this it can be better to be kind than “right” – some things are truly better left unsaid.

Effective ways to show support to your friend or family member 

One of the easiest ways to offer genuine support is to do rather than just say. For example, instead of saying “let me know if you need anything”, do something. 

Tell them you’re coming over to mow their lawn or run a load of laundry through. Bring over a couple of meals they can heat and eat or do a basic grocery shop for them. These simple tasks take very little time or effort but can make a world of difference for someone who isn’t currently capable of doing these things for themselves (and would never actually ask for them). 

Another tip is to reach out on holidays and birthdays. These times are often some of the hardest, especially for the first year or two. 

If you share a close relationship, you could even offer help with planning the funeral. This is a big task, and an especially difficult one for someone dealing with grief.      

If you want to support your loved ones should something happen to you, keep in mind that funeral insurance, and a list of your wishes for your funeral could assist in making the process easier for them in the toughest of times.