Overused Expressions of Sympathy


Funerals are for the living as family and friends gather to mourn; yet so many common expressions of sympathy ignore the immediate pain of the grievers. Even if the loss is anticipated, the death of a loved one still shocks the survivors.

Please avoid well-worn expressions of condolence because, while they appear to offer sympathy, they do little more than dismiss another person's grief. A mourner's deep and complicated feelings of loss are diminished with empty, overused phrases that minimize sadness. A helpful comment does not necessarily make the sender feel better. Instead, it supports or comforts the bereaved by acknowledging the pain.

Examples of worn out expressions of sympathy that increase distress because they do not acknowledge the personal pain of loss include:

Your loved one wouldn't want you to be sad.
If I'm not sad when my mother dies, when am I sad?

He's in a better place.
People of faith feel the intense pain of loss even if they believe in an afterlife. See note below

At least she's not suffering anymore.
I was grateful my mother wasn't suffering anymore, but that didn't prevent me from grieving her death.

Be strong.
Being "strong" suppresses emotions and prolongs grief.

She lived a long life.
See Good Intentions / Unhelpful Remarks.

Be grateful you had him as long as you did.
It is very painful for the survivor when death breaks a long, positive relationship.

It was her time.
My mother was dead and I hurt. The idea of Divine timing didn't help me when grief was new.  

He's at peace now.
There is nothing peaceful about fresh grief.

God never gives you more than you can bear.
Acute grief feels unbearable.

Time heals all wounds.
That's like telling a starving man he will eat...someday. Not much comfort there.

Call me if you need me.
Grieving people have no energy to ask for help. Call them instead!

I know just how you feel.
Grief is unique. We can never know exactly how another person feels.

Keep busy. It will take your mind off things.
Grievers need to grieve in order to heal.

It's time to move on.
Grief does not have a timetable.

Now you have an angel in heaven.
I would rather have her here with me.

Everything happens for a reason.
Maybe, but nothing makes much sense in the throes of grief.

Celebrate his life.
People new to grief are too sad to celebrate.

Her death was a blessing.
Grief does not feel like a blessing.

Note to Overused Expressions of Sympathy:

When grief is new, shock and numbness protect grievers from feeling the full force of the loss. It is normal and natural for surviving family members to use phrases such as, "He's in a better place." This acts as a necessary buffer from the pain by keeping the focus on the deceased loved one and away from personal suffering. Mourners endure the surreal experiences of funerals, wakes and calling hours any way they can: an end to suffering and the promise of everlasting life may be the only slivers of light in the darkness.

When you comfort the bereaved family, however, you best accept your role as loving friend by offering support to the living that acknowledges the pain of the loss without diminishing the sadness of the grievers.

Don't worry too much if you have used any of these phrases in the past. I certainly offered my share of "cosmic condolences" before the deaths of my best friend and both parents. Your friends know that you were trying to help them. Please do make an effort from this day forward to avoid tired clichés when you attempt to comfort a friend or loved one in grief.

The Difference Between Sympathy and Empathy:


Sympathy comes from the Greek word sympatheia and means sorrow for the distress of another. When we are sympathetic, we have an affinity for, and are affected by, someone else’s feelings. Empathy is derived from the Greek word empathia and denotes understanding of another person’s feelings, situation or motives. Put simply, sympathy suggests feelings while empathy refers to understanding. Since we wish to acknowledge the sad feelings of those we hold dear, and feel sadness ourselves, we offer expressions of sympathy. We can also have empathy (understanding) for our grieving friends and loved ones, but the two words are not the same.

Go to next page: A Word About Sympathy Cards

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