There are many different ways you can express your sympathies when someone dies and there is no right or wrong way of doing so. The Australian Centre for Grief and Bereavement recommends contacting the person as soon as possible. The method of communication you choose is completely up to you, and will depend on your comfort level and relationship with the person mourning.
Face to Face
The most intimate way to pass on your condolences is by having a conversation in person. Meeting face-to-face can make it easier to gauge how to act around the bereaved and what might be an appropriate way to comfort them. In this situation the mourner’s body language will tell you a lot about the way they are feeling. If their arms and legs are crossed or they are facing away from you and avoiding eye contact it could indicate they are not ready to have a conversation about the loss. Likewise, if they are visibly upset it may be appropriate to offer some form of physical comfort like a hand on their shoulder or a hug.
Over the phone
A phone call can be just as personal as a face-to-face encounter. These days, most people communicate through other means so it can be rare to receive a phone call that isn’t a reminder to attend an appointment or pay a bill. If you decide to send your condolences over the phone, choose an appropriate time and think about writing a script or jotting down some prompts before dialling. This can help you to navigate the conversation and avoid coming across insensitively. Similarly, a text message or voice recording can allow you to plan out what you are going to say in advance and give the bereaved a chance to respond in their own time.
Rather than publishing official obituaries or death notices people often notify friends about the loss of their loved ones online. This can offer a quick and easy opportunity to pass on your condolences by responding publicly to the social media post or by reaching out through a private message.
A sympathy card and flowers
Sending a handwritten card and a bunch of flowers or a potted plant can be a good way to show your support from a distance. Cards are widely available at newsagents and supermarkets which already contain a message expressing sympathies, but a handmade card can add a more personal touch.
While there is no official structure to create the perfect condolence message you can use a basic formula to construct a message which is heartfelt and genuine.
1. Acknowledge the loss
Begin by letting the bereaved know you are aware of the death, making sure to refer to the deceased by name. If you like you can include a note to say how you found out about the loss to provide some context for the message.
E.g I was sorry to hear about the loss of Sarah from your father.
2. Express your feelings
Include a brief statement to share how you felt when you heard the news to show you sympathise with the emotions they may be feeling.
E.g I was distressed when I heard the news so I can imagine you are feeling a lot of sadness and hurt right now.
3. Note the deceased’s special qualities
Reflect on the deceased’s positive attributes and personality traits.
E.g Sarah was always thinking about others. Her passion for the environment and animal welfare was an inspiration to everyone around her.
4. Share memories
Personalise your message by including an anecdote or a fond memory you have of the deceased.
E.g I will always remember the amazing fruit pies Sarah made every Christmas, and when she didn’t have time to make one her very obvious attempts to disguise store-bought pies as homemade creations.
5. Offer support
Let the bereaved know you are available if they need anything. This can relieve the pressure of them having to ask for help if they are struggling. Offer to help with funeral arrangements or provide assistance with chores or other responsibilities.
E.g Please know I am here if you need support. I can bring over home cooked meals or walk the dog so you don’t need to stress about menial chores while you are grieving.
There are certain things which you should probably avoid saying when you are writing a condolence message as they can seem insensitive and make the situation worse.
Do not mention money or inheritance
Do not express relief
Do not tell them things will get better or ‘It was god’s plan’
Do not make the situation about yourself
We recommend writing a personalised message with reference to the deceased and their impact on society. The below examples can be used as a basis to construct your message.
I am sorry for your loss;
They will be sorely missed;
My thoughts are with you and your family;
Please accept my deepest condolences;
Sending thoughts and well wishes your way;
Words can’t express how sorry I am;
Thinking of you during this difficult time;
My heart breaks with you;
You have my sympathies.
The messages below can be used to accompany a floral arrangement:
Rest in peace;
In loving memory;
Vale ____ (name);
Gone but not forgotten;
Always in my heart.