How to Express Condolences – Etiquette Guide

Our comprehensive guide to the tough topic of expressing condolences

Expressing condolences is an always appreciated form of support that shows you’re not only keeping them in your thoughts, but that you’re there when they need you.

When a friend loses a loved one of their own, we can often feel helpless.

Receiving messages or words of condolence is an important part of the grieving process, allowing the bereaved to see just how special the relationships we build in life are.

If you’re struggling to find words of condolence that feel meaningful, our guide on how to express condolences may be able to help.

Ways to Express Condolences

If you’re feeling helpless after someone close to you loses a loved one, you’re not alone.

Many people find it hard to find the words that express what they want to say.

While it may be hard, possibly the worst thing you could do in this situation is ignore the loss, or just pretend that it didn’t happen.

It’s hard, but it’s a fact of life and while you may be able to get away with it, remember there’s no hiding for the bereaved.

Let’s explore the different ways you can express condolences below.

In Writing

Whether you’re attending a service to speak to the bereaved in person or not, you’ll most likely find yourself needing to write your condolences on a note or card.

Here are a few key points to consider when structuring your condolences in writing:

  • Provide context to your message: Let the bereaved know how you heard about their loss and if your relationship isn’t a close one, introduce yourself.
  • Let the bereaved know how you’re feeling: Share how the passing has affected you emotionally and offer your deepest sympathies.  Don’t be afraid to express your sadness.  Sincerity, not strength, is the key to a well written condolence message.
  • Share your own personal memories: Try and make the written message of condolence as personal as you can.  Share a memory or experience to ensure your condolences don’t sound too Hallmark.
  • Alternatively, include a reflection: If you didn’t know the deceased well enough to provide a personal memory or memorable interaction you shared, share a reflection of the impact they had on others.

Over the Phone

If you’re unable to make the service due to distance but still want to add a personal touch to your expressions of condolence, a phone call is certainly appropriate.

Here are a few key points to help you find the right words when making that tough phone call:

  • Keep the call short and to the point: The bereaved are no doubt receiving an influx of calls, so keep your conversations focused on offering condolences and support rather than sharing your own memories.
  • Listening is more important than sharing: The key difference between expressing condolences over the phone when compared to in written form is the responses received.  Focus on listening and offering support if they lead the conversation that way.
  • Don’t ask insensitive questions: If you’re not entirely up to speed, don’t ask questions about the circumstances around the death.  There is a time and a place for you to satisfy your curiosity and when offering condolences over the phone is not it.
  • Leave an appropriate voicemail: Often during times of loss, the last thing the bereaved are able to do is sit by the phone to answer calls.  This is totally understandable and after you leave an initial voicemail, a follow up call at a later date is always a good idea.

In Person

When you’re face to face with the bereaved, there’s no hiding from the emotions of the situation and it can be quite an overwhelming experience.

Here are a few key points to help you figure out how to express condolences in person:

  • Attend the funeral and wake: While the funeral itself may be a little busy and overwhelming, the more casual setting of the following wake is a good opportunity for you to express your condolences.
  • Make the effort to speak 1 to 1: No doubt this will be a brief conversation, but when attending a service in person try to speak to the bereaved even if just for a second.
  • Just your presence will be highly valued: If during a busy service you’re unable to offer your expressions of condolence face to face however, it’s okay.  Sometimes just a simple smile and nod during an overwhelming time is all that’s needed.  Just try to make eye contact.
  • Offer support: This final point is probably the most important.  Let the bereaved know that you’re here for them in their time of need and in the tough, ongoing months that are to come.

Things to Avoid When Expressing Condolences

When figuring out how to express condolences, there are a few key faux-pas that you’re going to want to avoid.

We’ve listed the top 5 in this section of our etiquette guide below:

  1. Don’t tell people they’ll feel better soon – Let the bereaved feel how they feel, it’s totally okay to be devastated.
  2. Don’t say things will soon be back to normal – Everyone handles grief in different ways and there’s no such thing as normal after the loss of a loved one.
  3. Don’t express relief – While you may feel somewhat relieved for the bereaved after a long, painful illness or the like, now is not the time.
  4. Don’t take sides in family feuds – Every family has their issues and expressions of condolences are not the time to stoke any simmering fires within the family.
  5. Don’t talk about money – When expressing condolences, don’t bring up money, possessions left behind or the will.  The time for this will all come further down the line.

Keep in Touch to Offer Ongoing Support

While offering condolences is important, remember that the bereaved will be receiving a lot of support during this time.

Messages of condolence are nice, but there’s only so many times we can hear something without becoming numb to the message.

Keeping in touch and being there for them on the long road following the service is the single most important thing that a friend can do.

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