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More than words: Communicating with family, friends and co-workers experiencing sorrow

Expressing condolences to someone experiencing sorrow is often difficult and uncomfortable. If done in a thoughtful and heartfelt manner, these often simple acknowledgements can make a lasting and treasured impact on those who are grieving.

Lisa Clark, PhD, Quality of Life psychologist and director of Grief Support, offers tips and techniques, from writing condolence letters to finding what to say at a memorial service, Clark outlines the importance of listening and of being present during her presentation titled “More Than Words: What to Do and Say in Times of Sorrow.”

“For caregivers, I think the biggest problem is that we want to fix it, but there is no fixing it. We just have to grieve; we have to feel sad,” Clark said. “You don’t have to come up with the perfect thing to say or do to fix their grief. We can comfort, but we can’t make their grief go away.”

Suggestions: What to say

  1. I am sorry that this has happened.
  2. I am here to help in any way I can.
  3. I don’t know what to say.
  4. You have my sympathy and support.
  5. I don’t know why this happened.
  6. I am sorry for your loss.
  7. You are in my prayers. (only if you mean it)
  8. Nothing (give a heartfelt hug instead.)

Suggestions: What not to say


  1. Offer comparisons—”I know how you feel…”
  2. Express relief—”You must be relieved that this ordeal is over.”
  3. Share graphic details
  4. Urge parents to try again
  5. Look on the bright side
  6. Overshare—”Now to catch you up on my life….”
  7. Badmouth anyone
  8. Discuss the will
  9. Share private information
  10. Use religious euphemisms

Suggestions: What to do

“There’s a big difference between being and doing. Most of us in this room are doers. We are caretakers,” Clark said. “It’s much harder to just be, but that’s the best gift that you can give someone who is experiencing a loss.”

  1. Be there for the long haul.
  2. Say the deceased’s name.
  3. Don’t change the subject.
  4. Remember important dates.
  5. Share memories.
  6. Don’t avoid.
  7. Check in frequently—text, cards, phone calls.

Suggestions: Supporting a friend or co-worker

  1. Ask: “What would be helpful?” or “How can we best support you?”
  2. Be sensitive to publicly acknowledging the loss at work.
  3. Write a note, bring flowers, send a card.
  4. Put alerts on your calendar to remind you of difficult days (holidays, anniversaries, test results, birthdays).
  5. Look for specific ways to help (meal, errand, pets).
  6. Continue to include in social plans, don’t isolate.
  7. Be culturally sensitive; learn co-worker’s customs.

Seven components of a condolence letter

  1. Acknowledge the death and refer to the deceased by name.
  2. Express your sympathy.
  3. Describe special qualities or traits of the deceased.
  4. Share a favorite memory of the deceased.
  5. Remind the bereaved of his or her personal strengths and/or special qualities.
  6. Offer to help in a specific way.
  7. End with a thoughtful hope, wish or sympathy expression.

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