My dad died when I was 9, and one of the phrases I hated the most was "I'm sorry." My angry response was invariably "Why? It's not your fault." I know now that they weren't apologizing, they were empathizing and sorry for the fact that I had to go through the loss.
My husband died three and a half weeks ago. I still hate the phrase "I'm sorry", because it's still not their fault, but at least now I can lie and answer with "I appreciate that."
What I hated the most after my husband died was the never-ending "If there's anything I can do, let me know" and "If there's anything you need, let me know" and "What can I do to help?"
I had no clue what I needed done, what people could do, what they wanted to do. And even when I did have things that I needed done, it felt I was imposing on them by asking them to do something. I know that they were offering because they honestly wanted to help me in any way they could, but I got so frustrated and stressed sometimes by trying to "come up with things for people to do."
It would have been better, I think, for folks to offer to do specific things, or simply say something like "I'll take care of cooking dinner" or "I'll make a list and go to the grocery store for you" or "Can I rake your leaves up so you don't have to worry about it?" and just take care of it. It would have spared me from feeling like I had to come up with things for them to do. But they absolutely would have had to have told me first before just "doing" - having people doing things without letting me know would have been worse, because it would have made me even less "in control" of my life.
I remember when I was in fourth grade, the father of a boy at my school died. It was the first time most of us at that young age had ever really had to think about death. I remember my teacher instructed my class on how to act toward the boy: "Unless you're really, really good friends with him, you shouldn't say anything to him about it, because it will just make him feel worse." Looking back, I think that was terrible advice to give a bunch of nine-year-olds.
I think so many people don't know what to say, so we just decide to avoid the subject altogether. It's not as though the boy would have somehow forgotten about his father's death once he came back to school; I don't think anything we could have said out of sympathy would have truly made his situation worse. I can only hope that he didn't feel too isolated with so many of his peers avoiding him.
The next year, the grandfather of a girl in my class died. Our teacher set aside a part of the day to talk about death with us, and we all made cards for the girl out of construction paper. The teacher also recommended that we all try to do one small, nice thing for her in the next month or so. When she came back to school a few days later, all of the cards were on her desk, and she was absolutely thrilled. I think this was a much better way to deal with it. The girl got to feel the support of her class, and we all felt like it was ok to talk about death; we didn't have to pretend it never happened. I think even the simplest "I'm sorry," is better than not acknowledging the death at all.