I’m Sorry for Your Loss

Let us not underestimate how hard it is to be compassionate. Compassion is hard because it requires the inner disposition to go with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. But this is not our spontaneous response to suffering. What we desire most is to do away with suffering by fleeing from it or finding a quick cure for it.Β  ~ Henri Nouwen

This is going to be a rather odd little post. I’m writing for your help. This is the time of year when both joys and sorrows are magnified by the expectations of the season. For those who are grieving, over and over you hear I’m sorry for your loss.

I don’t like that sentence. This is likely just my own personal quirk since I’ve never heard anyone else object to it. I don’t know exactly why I don’t like it. I guess it seems like such a platitude to me. It doesn’t feel like going with others to place where they are weak, vulnerable, lonely, and broken. It feels more like fleeing from another’s suffering or applying the obligatory quick cure.

It’s what every one says on TV when delivering news that a loved one has died. Actually, it’s what everyone, in real life, says whenever someone else is sad. I’ve heard it applied to the death of a spouse, a child, a parent, a marriage, a pet, a career, a dream, to bankruptcy, to theft and to competition. It’s on Hallmark cards, Law and Order and the lips of our neighbors.

However well-meaning, I don’t like it, but I don’t know quite how to replace it. It’s a different message than I’m praying for you. It doesn’t have the same intent as I’m thinking about you.

I know sometimes there aren’t words, but when we’re separated by physical distance, sometimes words are all we have.

So, I’m wondering, what words do you use? Me, I generally just end up saying I’m so very sorry. But I’d love to learn from you – all of you. What has comforted you. What have you said to offer comfort?

It is, after all, that time of year when compassion may be the greatest gift we give.

Author: Debbie

A former counselor and public speaker, I'm grateful for many, many things - God's grace most of all!

39 thoughts on “I’m Sorry for Your Loss”

  1. Good post…it’s never an easy thing knowing what to say to someone who has had a loved one die – even if you have had someone close to you die. I think it depends entirely on how well you know the bereaved. Although I have said “I’m sorry for your loss” to people I don’t know well, I try to personalize it and say something along the line of “I’m so sorry your precious child/husband/mother died.”

    When our son died, we heard “thinking of you,” “praying for you,” etc. many times, but we had very little actual, physical support to back up the words. In my humble opinion, what matters is the HEART behind the words…AND, depending on how well you know the person and the close proximity to the bereaved, the actual ongoing support (doing dishes, hugging, taking care of the kids, etc.) that is done for the long haul. I don’t think a person should actually say s/he is sorry for a loss or is thinking/praying for the bereaved unless s/he truly IS. Sometimes saying such a phrase gets a person off the guilt hook (it looks or sounds like caring or doing something, but doesn’t quite reach the heart level), but it’s not followed by the actual action – they are only words. I’m sure we’ve all done something similar, me included, so I am not throwing stones. Only God has the ability to look into a person’s heart/life and know if that person is actually sorry or thinking/praying – it’s not up to anyone else to judge. Maybe we just need to assume the best (that whoever is saying it is actually sorry or thinking/praying)…and leave the rest up to God. I figure all of our lives will be played up on the big screen in heaven someday for everyone to see, anyway. I just need to take care of my own heart and make sure it’s right.

    1. Rebecca – I agree with you wholeheartedly. There simply are no words that are ‘adequate’ or just right. In times of great heartache, I’ve been surprised by who has come along side me, and who simply slipped away.
      You’re so right, it’s my own heart that I’m accountable for and that I pray God will continue to make more responsive.
      Your pain is something I can’t begin to grasp. I will pray. I made a commitment a while back to quit saying that unless I write it down and follow through. I’ve written you and your husband and your family in tonight and you’ll continue to be in my prayers.
      Thank you for sharing here as one who has experienced so much sorrow.
      Grace and peace to you,

  2. I agree with GrowthLines, above: Job’s friends just sat with him–was it for a whole week?–and not until they began speaking did they make mistakes in what they said. And he who never makes any mistake in what he says is a perfect man, able to keep the whole body in check! πŸ™‚

    1. katharine – it’s also a reminder to be to keep quiet. Job’s comforters did sit a long time with him. And they brought comfort until they started talking. πŸ˜‰

  3. The Henri Nouwen quote is wonderful. The first thing I asked myself was “How many times have I said exactly that?” I hope not many, because it does sound almost sterile, hollow. If I have said it, I hope it became clear that I was beginning the conversation, and that my plan was to hang around, close, at a distance, whatever the person needed. I agree with others who have said that our poor choice of words, more often than not, has to do with our own discomfort.

    I think maybe people are willing to tolerate some awkwardness from us if we can manage to let them know our intention is to hear them, and to be present in pain we may not fully understand

    1. Paulann – I agree with you – the real message comes from the heart, not the lips. I just wanted to put the thought out there that maybe we could take a breath and say something we haven’t heard a hundred times on TV. But as many have said here, words fail us.
      I live a great distance from all of my friends and family – and even my new online friends. We work 24 hours a day, every day. So, unless I’m asleep, I’m sharing the gate or working the gate. That leaves me with only my prayers and my poor choice of words to offer as comfort.
      You make a wonderful point. We aren’t likely to forget those who choose to be present with us through our pain (whether it’s physically present or emotionally available and giving). Thank you so much for adding your wisdom to this discussion.
      ~ Debbie

  4. Wow. Great reading.
    When I lost a pre-born child, a woman told me she thought it was because the child was deformed (her words) and God knew we would not have the strength to give it a happy life. I wish she had just said, “I am sorry for your loss.”
    When my mother died peacefully and quickly at age 79 3/4, just as she would have wanted, everyone I knew said, “I am sorry for your loss.” That was the first time I had ever heard the statement, and all I could think of was how the grammar in it was off. (We are sorry FOR something if it is our fault, if we are penitent.)
    Yet, saying, “I am sorry,” or, “I am so sorry,” is considered extremely right, etiquette-wise. Hmm.
    And–when I called the company that made my mother’s huge, computerized sewing machine, for instructions about the warrantee-transfer, I got some guy with a thick India accent. After I explained what I needed, his first words were, “First of all, let me say I am sorry for your loss.” It caught me off guard. Maybe he was just trying to be polite, but what is wrong with politeness? It’s the small curtsies and courtesies of life that keep it going. And all the way from INDIA? It got me.

    1. dear katharine – well, that’s an interesting take on it – all the way from India!
      Isn’t it interesting how easily our hearts are moved my the slightest kindness? I think that speaks, in part, to the general poverty of kindness we see until our worlds collide.
      I lost my third baby at 4 1/2 months. The Dr who eventually had to do a DNC said something similar – “That’s God’s way of taking care of mistakes. There was something wrong with him or you wouldn’t have miscarried.”
      My heart was so broken that it might not have mattered much what he said, but that certainly wasn’t a comfort.
      I’m unfailing polite (as are all good little soldiers) and I agree with you, we could use a shower of politeness and courtesy. The true value lies, I believe, as Chaz said, in the authenticity. Without the heart, even the most eloquent words can be patronizing. Thank you, katharine, for adding your experiences and your thoughts to this discussion.
      ~ Debbie

  5. Debbie… thank you for bringing this up…
    My daughter just accompanied a friend to Spain for a very serious back surgery and after a few days commented on the rudeness of the people there. But… after a week and having seen the people in their livelihoods, especially at the sea where almost every fishing vessel was for sale, she saw the heaviness of heart and despair in the people because of their falling economy and their tremendous needs. She saw them in a totally different light and could have deep compassion for them instead of hasty judgement. Your post covers this beautifully…
    Now instead of passing judgement she offers warm kindness even if no words pass between them… and I know to lift up more prayers for these,as you put it in Deb’s Simple poems, I want to bless and not ” attack one for whom He shed His blood.

    It “does” all starts in the heart!

    We are God’s workmanship… that none may boast! Praise God!

    1. Hello fisherlady and welcome to two minutes of grace! What a life altering experience that must have been for your daughter – and a lesson she’s sharing from Spain, through you, all the way to me in Texas! Warm kindness is the gift grace enables and, in a sense, requires.
      Thank you very much,
      ~ Debbie

  6. Good comments.

    So much does depend on the situation. Some have had a terrible history with the person they’ve lost and with that there can be a whole plethora of feelings.

    Each situation is so unique. From divorce, loss of a dear pet, friend ,child, home, partner, work and I’m sure many more. Even loss of ones self thats not realized till one feels some intense pain and to only realize it in retrospect Loss is loss. Even if it a material item like a home. So much is not the item but what it meant to us for example ; the memories associated with it. Even status, which I know isn’t important but it’s a change/adjustment of the heart. Sometimes we don’t even realize there was any feelings attached to it

    So with that said its interesting.
    When I came across a couple who had lost an unborn child I would sometimes say ” ohhh that would be so hard i cant even imagine. How are you? I’ll even ask what they named them. I have found that most like to acknowledge their child because it makes that baby real for them.

    That’s just one example. I do not say however ” I know exactly how you feel” because no one can ever know for sure. I can say I had lost my —— too. I love you and care about how you are doing.
    I think the doing something for or cooking is a great idea. That speaks volumes. Real love without words.
    You and Heidi have said things that were helpful one being ” I know you loved her a lot “. It acknowledges what was true for me. I can’t describe what that does for me. Sometimes people think ” well they weren’t very nice so why would you miss them”. Doesn’t matter …the heart is involved bottom line.

    Action speaks

    1. Dear Cathy – Wonderful example of compassion for the couple who had lost an unborn child. And you are SO right – we never know exactly how anyone else is feeling, however similar we perceive our situations to be. Everything that has led to that common pain point is different, so our experience of that pain is uniquely different.
      Thank you for your wise words, my friend,
      ~ Debbie

  7. It is difficult to find adequate words to console a grieving person. I have used various phrases, depending on the individual and when I learn of the death. I have said, “My condolences,” “I’m sorry to hear that,” “My good thoughts are with,” “You are in my prayers,” “His/her suffering has ended,” “They are in a better place,” “Let me know if I can do anything for you.”

    I think people already know whether or not you care–and they can see it in your eyes. Some people are very uncomfortable around grief, and others are able to be more gracious and verbal. What can you say, really? Unless the person already believes in God and you have that in common, it is difficult to say anything but the prescribed phrases. Even if the grieving individual believes in God, death (especially untimely death) can be devastating and cause anger, doubt, etc. Then, it becomes a longterm process for that individual to heal.

    1. Aunt Melanie – You make a good point, most of the time, people do already know whether or not we care and so much of that caring is communicated non-verbally. I think it’s when people say nothing, make no contact at all, that is the most hurtful. A friend recently went through a very difficult time and while her cyber friends reached out to her, her in-person friends and family didn’t attempt any comfort in any form.
      It isn’t our job to remove another’s grief, but it does seem to me to be our job to, as jellie said, take the walk with them, if we’re given that privilege.
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts here.
      ~ Debbie

  8. I would agree that, “I am sorry for your loss”, has become cliche, and worn through over use. It feels like it falls too easily from our lips as what we have been trained into through culture and entertainment.

    Funny you should mention TV shows as I first recognized hearing the universal application of this phrase back in the 1990’s on NYPD Blue. I remember noticing that all characters in the show said this same phrase in all circumstances of loss. Thus diminishing it from a sincere expression of empathy to a shallow nicety.

    Yet, in a busy enviroment of daily tragedies, what else could any of us be capable of?

    But when I am in a more personal or intimate setting and I am made aware of a loss, I immediately look for something to relate to in it. If it’s divorce or breakup, I immediately go back to my hellish period and say something to the effect of, “Hey, I have been through one too. It is never easy. But life does get better”.

    If it is a death, again, I search my heart for the feelings of what it was like when I lost someone… which I did a few years ago, and simply say what comes to mind such as… “Sorry to hear it. I lost someone a few years ago and I can appreciate what you must be going through”.

    I think the key is to seach our heart and then let our mouth speak from it… authentically. We can’t do this every time though, in which cases, the niceties are the next best alternative. The key though, I believe, is authenticity. Even, “I am sorry for your loss”, can be spoken from the heart.



    1. Checking back in and I really like what everyone has to say and the thoughts and ideas for alternatives. πŸ™‚ I did try to think and pray and came up with something quite similar to Pastor J’s – jelillie – to maybe say that I don’t know exactly what they are feeling and thinking right now, but that I hurt for them and want them to know that they can call me or write if it would help. I would listen and care because I loved them.
      Thank you so much Debbie, for helping us think this through so we can be as compassionate as we can be . . .as ambassadors for Christ.

      1. Debbie – Hopefully, as we journey in grace together, we’ll become a more thoughtful group of ambassadors. So many diverse and wise responses were shared. I just love that, don’t you? πŸ˜€
        As different and broken and feeble as we may be, we can learn so much from each other.

    2. Chaz – I absolutely agree. As is true most often, it all comes back around to the heart. “I’m sorry for your loss” can be spoken from the heart and sometimes certainly is.
      You’re so right, it IS the authenticity that counts.
      Have you ever sent a e-card and the box pops up: “Don’t know what to say? Try one of our messages written just for this occasion!” ?
      Whenever I see that, I always think, If I have nothing at all in my heart to say to you, possibly I should just skip the card altogether.
      I think (this may seem contrary to this post) that we’ve become so consumed with saying the right thing that we can easily lose the heart that motivated saying anything in the first place.
      I chose Kari’s photo for this post because I believe that obligatory words, inauthentic condolences, grieve the grieving.
      Thanks for joining in, Chaz. I value your input and your insight.
      ~ Debbie

  9. Debbie, I agree — I don’t like that line or the catch phrase about “having closure”. Where did they come from?

    I have a hard time finding something to say, but I agree with jelillie — it depends on my relationship to the person that is grieving, and whether they are believers or not. Nothing can take away their grief or pain, except the peace of the Lord.

    I once read a piece of advice that said don’t ask them what you can do to help, because in the depths of their grief, they probably don’t know. Just step in and do what you see needs doing, whether it is housework, childcare, cooking, etc.; or just to sit quietly with them and let them talk if they need to.

    I am reminded of the story of a child that went to visit someone that had just lost a loved one, and when asked afterward what they had said, they replied, “Nothing, I just gave them a hug and cried with them.”

    I have found through my life that the thing that means the most to me is a loving heartfelt hug and the acknowledgement that they really do care. It is their love and support, not the words said that mean the most.

    1. Dear Drusilla – Oh, indeed, that could have been another post: What is Closure? That concept is so lost on me, I can’t even speak to it. It seems, at best, to be a poor word for peace. What do you think?

      My Mom and Dad died 11 month a part. They were greatly loved and were strong Christians. The most stunning thing that happened to me during that year was being told over and over by others how I should feel, how long I should grieve, what my parents would want me to feel/do, and an endless sharing of scripture verses.

      The people that were and are dearest to my heart didn’t ‘exhort’ me or try to ‘fix it’ – they did exactly what you suggest – they simply made it clear that they loved me (whether it was through fixing a meal a ‘heartfelt hug’).
      Those who’ve cried with me and prayed for me are treasures.

      Thank you for your words, which mean much, here.
      ~ Debbie

  10. Good ideas are presented here.

    I say: “Our world grew smaller today…” I never get any further than those words. It seems to be enough for the other person to know that I recognize there is a large “hole” in their life that can never be replaced.

    Perhaps someone will have a better phrase. I will look forward to following the thread. Thank you Debbie for this thoughtful post.

    1. Oh Linda – how very insightful. There is that feeling, in grief, that the rest of the world is spinning in exactly the same way, expect for the little portion one is standing on, which seems, at once, to have stopped. For you to acknowledge that the world (which is so very big) is smaller because a portion of it no longer is there for another is most generous and kind.
      ~ Debbie

  11. Oh Debbie, i expected nothing less from you with this post, absolutely. There really aren’t words, and i feel the same frustration as you in not knowing what to “do” … or “write” or “say”. And if someone doesn’t pray or “think” (God forbid) what is one to do when they can’t wipe away another’s sorrow? (Sort of a manly thing to do … Don likes to say, “Well, we have X or Y to look forward to) …. yeah but BOOOHOOO.

    Personally i am quite a sponge and tend to suffer the sorrow of others without realizing it. But we can’t live like that either…

    Whether i should or not, I read more into your words than you write. I know you care about people a lot because you “show up” and read and post replies to all (our group’s) posts? Truly? Right? It’s in the Program about Showing up, and you do that.

    Jen says wonderful things like keeping people in her heart, folding people into her heart … i’ll leave that to her … she has many wonderful words.

    I wish i could have a great big cry, a great big cup of tea, a great big hug with all my broken friends … then we’d go dancing, or play a stupid game and continue to drink tea and share whatever we wanted about friends we’ve lost, friends we worry about … not a pity party … a dissemination of grief … each person acting as a little sponge for each other person … and adding it to our own experience. We should set up a Cyber Party and let it rip. Cool. Remember, i just had lots of vitamins and fish oil … i may be on some sort of vitamin-induced high. HA HA HA! Not nearly … xoxoxo m

    1. dear melis – A Cyber tea party to disseminate grief. Only you would think of that. It’s really quite an excellent idea. There’s a part of grief that is private and protected, but there’s also a need to share and drink tea and cry and be sponges for each other.
      I believe we are enriched by journeying into the Shadowlands together, just as we are by joining in celebrations. Thank you for your always vulnerable heart – I do believe it’s about the heart, not the words.

  12. For me it depends on the relationship I have with the person. You are right “I’m sorry for your loss” is not terribly heart felt, though it’s a place to start
    . “I’m sorry” to me communicates the emotion without the platitutde. Maybe “I hurt for you.”, or “I hurt with you.”… “What can I do?”
    “What do you need?”
    I think the statement has to be made that walking through pain with someone is exactly that a walk. It takes time and any statement if it is all that is offered will never be enough. Thanks for this thoughtful post.

    1. Dear jelillie – I don’t object to the I’m sorry part because although, as Jan said, we didn’t cause it, we are sorry.
      I think the word “loss” just seems so universal and small to me (it could be my car keys or my loved one). Maybe it’s simply that you hear it so often that it’s like lips moving without anything being said.
      I love your words here: “I think the statement has to be made that walking through pain with someone is exactly that a walk.” Oh so true and sometimes a very long walk. Thank you for you tender insight.
      ~ Debbie

    1. Jan – Such a good point. When I was 30, my cousin shot himself. He was my first love (we didn’t know 1st cousins couldn’t marry until we were in grade school). One of things that often happens after a suicide is that no one talks about the person who’s died. Sharing memories is a precious gift. Thank you for the reminder of the comfort that comes from remembering together.
      ~ Debbie

  13. Debbie,
    Can I tell you how relieved I am not to be the only person who despises that phrase? It seems more designed to keep people at arms length than it does to hold them close. I usually just tell them that I know I have nothing to say that will make it better. But, like my grandmother, I will also try to feed them.

    1. SueBE – Really? You, too? I’ve honestly never heard anyone object to the phrase before and thought I might be a bit off my beam on this one. You are so like my Mother. She always, always fed them, and as they ate, they knew both comfort and love. She died 6 years ago this Christmas and tears still stream down my cheeks tonight as my heart aches in the missing of her and as I remember how well and deeply she loved.
      You’re also right, we can’t tell anyone anything that ‘makes it better’. We can simply offer comfort in the way we’re most able: food, prayer, presence, practical help, listening etc…
      Thank you for feeding the heavy hearted,
      ~ Debbie

  14. Debbie,

    Thank you for this post. I have often felt this way about that phrase. I haven’t experienced a lot of loss. Only the usual grandparents and great grandparents, never had any pets, so I can’t speak as one who has an opinion on how I felt, but the phrase “I’m sorry for your loss” always felt like something you say so the other person doesn’t really have a chance to make you uncomfortable with their emotions. I think it’s a no response phrase intended to release us from the awkwardness of actually having to care or go there with them (as you said). I wonder if, “How are you doing?” or “Is there anything I can do” may be a bit better, but again, I haven’t been in that position very often, so maybe someone who has experienced more loss could shed some light. Perhaps considering the individual. Maybe there’s no one size fits all phrase for these occasions.

    Thanks for another great post.


    1. Jill – That’s exactly how the phrase strikes me. It’s like a verbal escape clause – releasing us from our own feelings of inadequacy. Interesting how we can make even someone else’s pain ‘awkward’, as you well said, for ourselves. How quickly the focus in that moment shifts from the griever to the ‘comforter’.
      I’ve experienced a bit more loss than you, but much less than many and I agree, there isn’t a universally appropriate response.The words and actions that help are unique, not just to the person, but to their grief.
      ~ Debbie

  15. As always Debbie, you really pull the covers off of our frail attempts to deal with those things we’d rather just run from. I think sometimes we just need to refrain from speaking. I think words can get in the way. I think what’s most important for those who are hurting is to simply know we are there for them, willing to walk through the trial with them, committed to loving them in a way that there are no words to define. Thanks and God bless.

    1. MT – Beautifully said:”I think what’s most important for those who are hurting is to simply know we are there for them, willing to walk through the trial with them, committed to loving them in a way that there are no words to define.”
      Wise words from a tender heart.

      A challenge for me at this particular time is that I work a job which requires being on site 24/7 every single day, so much of my ‘being there’ is very long distance. I know when words fail the Father doesn’t.

      I also know that even Job’s comforter’s seemed wise until they opened their mouths, right? πŸ˜‰
      Thank you for sharing your wisdom,

  16. Debbie, I think this is a great post, especially for now. And, I’ve heard someone else say this too, that they really hated people telling them they were so sorry. I remember because . . .it’s what I say too. Before I fling anything out here, I’m going to pray and think about this. I love the idea of us all coming up with something together. What would compassion say? What would Jesus say?
    God bless you, Debbie, and I’ll be checking back in!

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