Finding the right words or what feels like the proper way to offer expressions of deepest sympathy to a family member, friend or colleague after the loss of a loved one can be challenging. There are many considerations to take into account when expressing condolences to another individual.

Charles Swindoll, in a thoughtful book titled Come Before Winter, writes, “If tears were indelible ink instead of clear fluid, all of us would be stained for life.” Swindoll is right – none of us escape the pains of death. We see it in the news when a natural disaster strikes a third-world country. We watch it on television when hostages are held and the tragedy ends with the loss of life. We empathize when the neighbor loses their mother.

But there are times when we actually feel it – when it touches our daughter or son, when our father loses his wife, when a sister suffers a miscarriage. The loss is no longer headlines or a story; it is a personal fabric threaded with passion and pain and puzzlement.

What skills are involved in communicating after a loss the deepest of emotions to the closest of people? Can we choose the words carefully so that they are meaningful? Are there ways to make it easier?

What Are Expressions of Deepest Sympathy?

What is the best way to express deep sympathy to a friend or family member who has lost a loved one? What are expressions of condolence?

  1. The expressions can be words. Deep sympathy or condolences may take the form of words. A personal phone call, a visit to the home, a handwritten note, or a specially selected sympathy card will convey compassion and care for the grieving.
  2. The expressions can demonstrate care. Meeting the physical needs of the bereaved during the days of visitation and the funeral can be an important way of taking some of the burden off the individual. Simple tasks like household chores or meal preparation can be important expressions of compassion.
  3. The expressions can be presence. The presence of a close friend during a lengthy visitation time or at an emotional funeral service can be invaluable. When words have been said and details have been arranged, the presence of a compassionate friend can be a stabilizing force during the time of emotional turmoil.

Proper expressions of deepest sympathy are appropriate when we have a close relationship with the one grieving. Those feelings can be genuine and shared if we knew the deceased and are mourning the loss as well.

When a dear friend loses a father whom we did not know, the expressions of sympathy should always carry the depth of personal care and concern. Empathy for the close friend pushes us to say words that are meaningful and convey the very best message of hope.

Four Principles to Help Convey Deepest Sympathy

Let the words be true, not trite. Start with words from your own heart. Genuinely offer words that express the sorrow that you feel for the loss. Encourage the person with your presence. Offer words that assure that you will be there beyond the moments at the funeral home. Don’t say words that everyone says – let them be as unique as your relationship.

Let the memories be joyful, not jumbled. Say a word that remembers the relationship and that conveys the importance of both the deceased and the survivor in your life. Don’t count on the right words coming to you – pause before you meet to gather the right things to express. Find memories that will place a smile in your hearts, if not on your lips.

Let the future be hopeful, not hurting. Tell the bereaved that what he or she is feeling is okay. Respond specifically to the words you have heard. If you’ve gone through a similar loss, share your own experience if you think it would help. Look to times beyond the immediate moments of pain and loss.

Let the pauses be silent, not strained. Don’t press if the grieving person doesn’t feel like talking. Don’t be uncomfortable with the pauses and times of silence. You can offer comfort and support with your silent presence. If you can’t think of something to say, just offer eye contact, a squeeze of the hand, or a reassuring hug.

Swindoll ends the chapter on sorrow and hope with these words. “Sorrow and her grim family of sighs may drop by for a visit, but they won’t stay long when they realize faith goes there first … and doesn’t plan to leave.” Express deep sympathy with your honest responses and faithful presence. Be a support with encouraging words, an empathetic ear and a helping hand.