What to Say When Someone Dies Suddenly

Q. A neighbor of mine in her late forties drowned in a freak boating accident when her canoe overturned. I want to go to the funeral, but what can I possibly say to her husband and her children, who range in age from 8 to 14?

A. Accounts of sudden accidents grab our attention in the newspapers or on TV virtually every day. Someone survives cancer, only to be killed by a car careening out of control while crossing the street. Or a construction worker falls from a 20-story building when a safety strap breaks. Although any death is disturbing, an unexpected death tests our own sense of safety in the world. A random, senseless accident underscores how vulnerable we all are, especially if the victim is someone we know.

It’s not surprising that you feel tongue-tied at the prospect of talking to your neighbor’s family. In this situation, words do seem inadequate. There is always the fear of saying something “wrong,” something that might offend, make you look foolish or seem insensitive. Yet I’ve found the most appreciated words are usually those that first come to mind when you hear the terrible news, such as, “This is such a tragedy. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry.” Speaking your unvarnished feelings validates the enormity of what has happened and makes a connection with those left behind.

Another option is, “I don’t know what to say.” We all think it, and it is a powerful statement—one that confirms the catastrophic circumstances involved. Or you might try, “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” The fact is you can’t know the depth of someone else’s pain, grief or sense of loss. The sudden death of a loved one is so hard to bear because it’s such a shock to the mourners. There is no time to prepare, to deal with unfinished business or to say goodbye.

Remember that nonverbal gestures count, too. A touch on shoulder or the arm—or a hug if you’re close to the person—says, “I’m here for you.” Just your presence at a funeral or memorial service makes an eloquent statement. “I felt loved and comforted when so many people attended my husband’s funeral,” one widow told me. “Showing up was a tribute to him, of course. But the support also filled my heart. It wrapped me in a cocoon of caring.”


If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.


Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.  


Image via stock.xchng / wendylee03

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Comment by Susan Mayer on February 18, 2011 at 10:42pm
My husband was killed in an accident, so I can speak from direct experience about what words do and do not sit well.  Honest, heartfelt expressions are comforting - even if the person says they don't know what to say.  That's honest, and there are, after all, no truly adequate words.  Another friend sent an email saying "surely this is wrong."  I liked that, too; it captured my own sense of disbelief.  Several people have said they can't imagine what I'm going through.  No, they can't, and that plain statement is also comforting because it suggests they've tried to imagine how I feel (even as they realized they cannot, and they can't).  What doesn't work are platitudes, telling me Steve didn't suffer (no, but I am suffering), and that sort of thing.  Funny thing about grief, but it's sharpened my radar for empty sentiment and shopworn cliches.  I'd say to someone wondering what to say to a person in my situation, just speak honestly and from your heart.  Take a minute to figure out how you're really feeling, and express those feelings.  That's all you need to do.

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