If you're not careful, your well-meaning condolences can make you sound like a total arse. The trick to offering your sincere sympathy to the bereaved is knowing what to avoid while you show your support. These are the seven big no-no's.
You've probably experienced loss in your own life, or at least know someone else who has, but don't ever make comparisons to your own experiences.
April Masini, an etiquette and relationship expert, explains to The New York Times that it's vital you don't make it about you. Don't ever say something like "I know how you feel". It's an earnest attempt at empathy, but it plays down their feelings, which are far more important right now.
Also, you don't know how they feel. Your experience with loss doesn't mean you know all the intricacies of their relationship and with the deceased. It isn't the same, so don't pretend it is.
Don't Say It's for the Best
You are not the creator of the universe, nor are you privy to the grand scheme of the future, so don't imply the death was for the best or that it's some kind of "blessing". How could you know that? You can't. Even if the deceased was suffering, this is still in bad taste.
As Diane Gottsman, the founder of The Protocol School Texas, puts it, these types of comments come across as trite and uncaring. You're essentially saying their death is a "good thing", which is flat out disrespectful. Let them come to their own conclusion about the event.
Don't Force Religion On People
Keep your positive religious outlook to yourself, unless you know they share the same perspective, says grief counselor Amy Olshever. You may mean well by saying something like, "They're in Heaven now," or, "They're in a better place," but that's only true if the grieving person believes in that stuff.
This goes the other way too. If you know the bereaved is religious, but you aren't, there's no need to say something you don't believe in. It's disingenuous and might be seen as rude.
Don't Rely On Social Media
Facebook makes it easy to offer condolences to someone, but it isn't ideal for all situations. For one, these types of comments can often be seen as self-serving. It isn't so much about comforting the grieving person as it is about being seen comforting the grieving person. If you're going to go the social media route, at least follow up with something more personal, such as a phone call or letter.
Also, be absolutely sure the bereaved has publicly posted about the death before you say anything! Otherwise you might be breaking the news with your message or forcing someone to talk about something they didn't want to share.
Don't Just Send a Text or Email
Look, most communication between family and friends is done through text messages or email these days. But some events still warrant an actual phone call or - gasp - a chat in person. Call first. If they don't answer, leave them a message. Hearing someone's voice is infinitely more comforting than reading a text. You can leave a follow-up text to offer support at that point if you feel the need.
Better yet, send them a written note or condolence card. It feels more personal and sincere, and it lets them read and respond to messages at their own pace. They will be barraged by calls and text messages, so give them something tangible to hold and read whenever they need to know people care about them.
Don't Use Meaningless Cliches
It's hard to avoid some cliches when offering condolences, but at the very least avoid ones that are flowery ways of stating the obvious. Phrases such as, "They're at peace now," or, "It was their time," or, "I know this is hard for you," aren't very helpful or supportive.
If you don't know what to say, Olshever recommends you keep it simple. Something honest and straightforward such as, "I'm sorry for your loss," is better than trying too hard and going too far. If possible, draw on your positive memories of the deceased. It lets them know you cared about them too, and that they aren't alone in their grief.
Don't Make Empty Offers
Offering help is always a kind thing to do, but you need to do it right. Don't put the onus on them by saying, "Let me know if you need anything". You need to offer legitimate examples of ways you can help. Tell them you'll bring them dinner, take care of a pet, do some house chores, run some errands, buy groceries, anything that can actually help them.
Most importantly: Don't hesitate to reach out. It might feel like you're bothering them during a troubling time, but they need support, comfort and even a good distraction if you can go visit them.