What to Say When Someone Dies After a Long Life

Q. The father of an acquaintance of mine just died at 98 years of age, and I’m uneasy about what to write in a condolence note. Nobody lives forever. The man had dementia for years. Is there something I can say besides “I’m sorry” in this situation?


People are living much longer these days, and obituary pages are filled with notices for people who died in their nineties or even beyond. I just saw a notice for someone who died at 104. In this case, you probably don’t know what the acquaintance is going through or the details of the father-son relationship. It’s important not to project your own feelings. The person may be relieved an ordeal is over. He may have done his mourning a long time ago. On the other hand, he could be grieving a deep loss right now—maybe for the man the father was before dementia struck. Some of us feel bereft at losing even the shell of a person and a hand to hold—if the deceased nourished us with love and acceptance all our lives. 


Because families are complicated, the safest thing to write when you aren’t close to the bereaved is: “I just heard about your father’s death. I send sincere condolences.” You can add after the first sentence, “I remember you talking about him” or “You mentioned him the last time we met,” if it’s true. Another option might be: “Please accept my condolences on the death of your father. You are in my thoughts.” Such words are quite enough. It’s when people write lengthy notes that they get into trouble—for example, making erroneous assumptions about how loving or attentive the mourner was during the deceased’s life. Not everyone behaves admirably.   


Beware of platitudes, such as “He lived a very long life.” Those words actually minimize the loss and can enrage some bereaved who feel the deceased’s life could never be long enough. Missteps also occur because we tend to believe we should comfort the bereaved, which is usually not possible when we have only a casual relationship with the person. Naturally you want to say the right thing. In your situation, a good condolence note acknowledges the death and expresses sympathy—period. The more you write, the more likely you are to write something insensitive.


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 Flickr Creative Commons / AntoniO BovinO

Views: 72010


You need to be a member of LegacyConnect to add comments!

Join LegacyConnect

Comment by Diamond on May 13, 2012 at 5:06pm

What to say when someone dies?  It depends - on how well you know them and sometimes - a geneuine hug is what they need.  If they do not believe in God it will be hard to tell them to trust in God at that moment.  However, later on..you may want to address the issue on why we die and grow old and what the future hold for mankind.  (Revelation 21:3,4)  So many people have varying belief in respects to what happens to the dead.  So, even if you have a spiritual background and the person may not - sometimes it is the approach and the knowledge that you have of that person that will dictate what you should say or do after they loose someone that was near and dear to them.  (Eccl 9:5)   So, in most cases - discernment is what is needed - to be in tune with the person and some of their belief - when in doubt a "loving hug" is what will comfort them.   So - discernment will play a hugh role in respects to what will you say or do.  I hope this helps. 

Latest Conversations

Jeanette McSherry posted photos
5 hours ago
Jeanette McSherry posted photos
5 hours ago
Jeanette McSherry posted a status
"Now in 2023 my baby brother died. Today I learned the stent in my heart was not working so I assume I am next"
6 hours ago
Jeanette McSherry posted a status
"Now in 2022 my son died at the age of 40! My daughters and I are not allowed any contact with his two children."
6 hours ago

Community Guidelines

Please be respectful of others. For more information, read our Community Guidelines.

Follow Legacy

© 2023   Created by Legacy.com.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service