What Do You Say When Someone Dies?

Last week my mother-in-law died. This is the fourth big death I've experienced as an adult (preceded by my parents and father-in-law). Each time I've been struck by the range of comments and behaviors that I and my husband have received from neighbors, friends and acquaintances. I've also been fascinated by how our electronic age is gradually changing the way we can respond to the news of a death.

With that in mind, for all of you out there who may wonder what to say when a friend's loved one dies, here are some tips. Believe me, every message of condolence is a blessing.

The absolute worst thing you can do is to remain silent. Your friend is grieving and feeling alone. They want to hear some recognition of their loss.  

Please Say Something! If you don't know what to say or are at a loss for words, you can always use the line uttered by every detective from every cop show on TV and every modern crime novel, "I'm sorry for your loss." It may be trite, but it covers the right ground and lets your friend know you care.

If you're part of a faith community, you can use say in an email, card or letter, "You are in our thoughts and prayers." Trite is OK when people are grieving.

However, try to refrain from saying that everyone is better off because the deceased was in bad shape. Words like that come across as pretty cold and unfeeling. Even after a long illness, the family is still feeling sad. There is a huge gap between having your loved one around and having them gone.

And please try not to say, "It was God's will." or "Things happen for a reason." You may believe it, but maybe the bereaved doesn't. It may be frustrating. Even the Rev. Dr. Sloane Coffin of Yale Divinity School said when his son died in an auto accident that he did not believe that God's hands were on the steering wheel.

An email is OK in this modern era (but not a text). Emails are fast, personal and easy to respond to.

Phone calls are good, too.

Handwritten letters, notes and cards are all deeply appreciated. And I even appreciate postings on Facebook.

If you've experienced loss yourself, you can reference that and how you understand the deep and frustrating feelings of loss. If you knew the deceased, say something you remember. Say something nice about them.

Offer help or give something tangible. I actually did ask for help from one friend who offered it. (When my mother died, one friend baked me cookies. Another gave me a rose plant that is still in my garden.)

Ask the person how they are doing. If you're in a conversation, invite them to talk about their experience with the death or the person who is gone.

Just listen. Just create a quiet space for the person to talk into. Make eye contact. Give a hug.

Life if tough. Death is part of life - something we all must face and live with. Make your friend's loss less sad by acknowledging it with kindness. Remember the Golden Rule.