When confronted with the death or serious illness of a friend or neighbor, we sometimes say nothing because we don’t know what to say. We’ve all felt that way. We’re sad ourselves over a friend’s sorrow, but don’t want to “bother” them. We don’t think anything we can do or say will lessen the terrible grief they’re enduring. So, we remain silent for fear of not getting it right.

But the only thing we get wrong is not acknowledging their loss and expressing sympathy.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, you may need to help someone experiencing the grief of a death or the gnawing fear they have over a loved one in the hospital or nursing home.

Experts in grief tell us it is not what you say, but that you reach out and sincerely say you’re sorry for their loss. It can be just that simple. A genuine expression of sympathy (condolence) and support can be nurturing. It helps the individual know they’re not alone, start to heal and see a future ahead.

If you’ve ever been through the death of a loved one, remember how you felt when a friend expressed their condolences. You may not remember the words, but you probably remember how it made you feel. Just to know someone is thinking about you, understands at least part of what you’re going through – somehow it helps. Even if it was delivered in a clumsy way, your friend’s sincere thoughts helped support you after death collapsed your world.

Grief experts explain how to be most helpful when these situations arise. Let’s look at the most helpful ways to express sympathy and offer support.

Expressing condolences

It’s best to express your sympathy as soon as you learn of the death. If the person is a friend, Facebook friend or a casual acquaintance, it’s okay to say you’re sorry via email or Facebook. This is not the traditional way, but it is certainly better than not saying anything. “I’ve been thinking about you at this difficult time”; or “Sorry to hear of your loss” will help. Ideally, follow up with a phone call (or several phone calls over the next few weeks and months) or a sympathy note. Keep it short. This is not the time for a lengthy recall of your own grief experiences. Wait for those conversations until your friend starts to recover or welcomes the opportunity to talk.

Do not respond via social media unless the person has personally released information about the death. Don’t put them in a position of having to explain the situation over Facebook until they are ready. Respect their lead and what method they use to tell this news.

Sympathy cards or a handwritten note are always welcome, especially if you knew the deceased or their family. Chances are the grieving family will re-read the positive and personal memories you’ve shared several times.

Start a card or note with your own version of “I’m sorry for your loss.” Mention what the deceased person meant to you personally, your family, the community or an organization where they were active. It can be a funny story or a memory of how the deceased helped you or made a difference in your life. Comment on the things you had in common or what you loved most about them. You might mention their unique qualities and say you’ll miss them too. Your memories of the deceased or anecdotes will become cherished family stories over the next months and years as the grieving process progresses. Remembering helps us all deal with grief.

If you need a list of sample expressions of condolence, there’s a good list here or  here.

Keep the first contact short and to the point. Once you have quickly responded with a call or card, it will be easier when you first see the grieving person again face-to-face.

Follow up later, within a week or so at the most, with a more personal phone call or letter. “Our whole family shares in your sorrow” is appropriate if you’re signing a card or note as a close family member.  As a close friend you might say, “I hold you in my heart and share so much sorrow for your loss.”

Most people are in shock immediately after a death. They may need help with food, making funeral arrangements or keeping the house presentable for visitors. A grieving person gets through the first week and the funeral on adrenaline. After the shock wears off and the reality of the loss sets in, the grieving person may need even more attention. Follow up with a visit, a covered dish, or take them out for a drive or lunch. If they turn you down, don’t be offended. They may not feel like going but do keep asking them. A phone every week to check on them is your best guide as to how and when you can help.

Grief experts caution against saying things like, “Let me know if I can help.” This puts the effort to make contact onto the grieving person at a time when they’re not functioning at 100%. Instead, be specific: “When can I drop a sandwich tray by the house?” “What time shall I drive the children to school (or dance lesson or baseball practice)?” “I’ll be by Saturday morning to mow the grass.” “I’m going to the grocery store, what do you need?”

Grief is unpleasant to observe in our friends and loved ones. We all want to avoid it. Grief can be lessened by the support of others. Never think that you shouldn’t bother a grieving person. People experiencing grief need human contact, attention and empathy. They are immersed in grief and need to know others care about them, want to provide support and share their grief. Your contact, in whatever form you choose, keeps them from drowning in their grief. Acknowledge this terrible thing that has happened to them and do whatever you can do to supply support and attention. Never ignore another’s suffering because it makes you uncomfortable.

Tips for condolence calls:

Be a good listener. Let them talk while you sit in silence. Don’t pressure them to talk until they’re ready. They may need to talk about the circumstances of the death, illness or the funeral. Ask questions gently and share memories.

Respect their way of grieving and accept mood swings. Don’t ask how they’re doing. There are no words to express how they’re feeling. They need to hear from you that this death hurts, that you love them and that you are here with them.

Suggest a good support group, grief group or counselor, if you know of one. Better yet, offer to go with them for support. Being with others who have gone through a loss can be comforting and enlightening. Group members can share tips on how to get through the toughest times and provide empathy.

Reach out at holidays, their birthday or other anniversaries that are special to the grieving person. The first Christmas without their loved one or the anniversary of the death are not times to be alone. Reach out and include them in your plans. Don’t be upset if they decline; call and check on them the next day. Keep offering invitations, but don’t be a pest. Let them decide when and what to accept.

Stay in touch for as long as they need you. If you were close to the deceased and/or family members, support is not a one-time effort. People going through a loss usually need help later, after the funeral flowers are dead and everyone seems to have moved on with their own life. Keep offering support – doing household chores, help tying up the paperwork for the deceased’s estate, planting a garden or take the car for an oil change.

However, always ask permission before doing anything for them. For example, washing a used cup sitting on his dresser may have been her husband’s last cup of coffee. Washing the deceased’s clothes may wash away the last trace of something that smells like her.

What to avoid

Here are some things we’ve all probably said or done when faced with another’s grief. Grief experts explain what to avoid:

Don’t make the death “about you.” Even if you have experienced a similar bereavement, never say, “I know how you feel.” Let them tell you how they feel. Accept their words without judgment. While there is a universality about death, each person deals with it and accepts it in a unique way.

Don’t avoid mentioning the deceased person’s name. You might talk about what the deceased would do or say, i.e., “Your mom would certainly enjoy this garden!” or “Your dad loved to BBQ. I’m glad to see you enjoying it too.”

Don’t offer advice – “Everything happens for a reason …” can feel so cruel.  “You can always _____ …” or “You still have _____” when all they want is their loved one alive again. Don’t advise them to “stay strong” or “don’t cry.” Crying and feeling vulnerable may be the best way for them to grieve. Don’t tell them to get over the death because that is impossible. The grieving process is unique to each person and to each death. It is your understanding that they need, not your advice.

Don’t try to explain the loss or say it was for the best or the deceased is in a better place. They must come to that realization on their own. That is a crucial part of healing.

Don’t question how long (or short) it’s taking them to “get over” the death. There’s no right or wrong way to express their grief. By saying, “It’s okay to be sad. You’re a strong person and I know you will get through this,” it acknowledges their sadness and your belief that things will get better.

Don’t push your faith on them if they don’t share it. Faith is very personal and if they’re interested, they’ll ask you.

Don’t try to “fix” the unfixable. You cannot bring back the deceased.

Don’t expect them to hold up their side of your friendship or kinship. It’s going to be very one-sided for a while. They can’t be available to you right now. It’s all they can do to take care of themselves and other daily responsibilities.

Don’t post photos of the deceased with family members online.

Don’t focus on just the positive because the grieving person is not on a positive wavelength right now. Acknowledge the pain they’re feeling and how bad things are right now.

Don’t comment on their appearance, either positively or negatively. Looks can be deceiving and most people can muster a “public face” just to get through the public part of their day. You don’t know why they’ve lost weight or what kind of hell they’re going through at home at 3 a.m.

Don’t say anything that diminishes the death and the pain they’re feeling. Don’t compare this death to any other.

Finally, and most important, don’t avoid the grieving person. That feels insensitive, rude and very hurtful to the person you’re avoiding. That’s probably not the impression you want to leave. How hard is it to give them a hug and say, “I’m so sorry.” If that’s all you can trust yourself to do and say, then that’s enough. You have acknowledged another person’s pain. Follow up if you can and stay connected.