What was the most comforting condolence sentence you ever heard?
March 21, 2013 5:11 PM   Subscribe

Has someone important to you passed away? What was the most comforting/most respectful thing anyone said to you when that happened? I work with the elderly, who die at an accelerated rate. 98% of the time, I genuinely care about the deceased and would like to give comfort to the surviving family. Since this comes up a lot, I feel as if I'm repeating the same phrases over and over. I need more options. I'm specifically asking for things people said to you that were kind.

I know that a lot of these might be case specific, but that will still help me. I'm not bad at condolences or uncomfortable with death: I don't need to hear what not to say. I'm just trying to get some IRL perspective on what has helped in the moment.
posted by Lately Gone to Human Relations (77 answers total) 220 users marked this as a favorite
I lost my beloved grandmother a year and a half ago, and I've had four miscarriages. In all cases, the statement that was the most comforting and respectful was "I'm so sorry for your loss" or "Oh, shit, that fucking sucks, I'm so sorry." Before I'd been through those experiences, I felt like you do, that these were empty platitudes and overused. Once I was in that position, though? I was surprised at the extent to which that really was the best thing to hear.

and if you want a list of what NOT to say, wow, I could go on at length.
posted by KathrynT at 5:21 PM on March 21, 2013 [28 favorites]

When my dad finished up here, at a young age but after quite a battle, a friend reminded me that any feeling I had was OK. It seems simple or trite, but it was a huge gift I've been thankful for always.

I don't know if that's the sort of thing you're looking for, since it's not exactly condolence. But it seems like many people experience additional suffering regarding death because they have to suppress relief, or anger, or any of a variety of "wrong" feelings.
posted by eyesontheroad at 5:24 PM on March 21, 2013 [11 favorites]

When my dad passed away, it was really awesome to hear about some fond remembrance or special thing that the person remembered about him. Knowing that he was loved and appreciated was really wonderful. But really any expression of sorrow was welcome. Just acknowledging the loss is important.
posted by otherwordlyglow at 5:30 PM on March 21, 2013 [16 favorites]

Yes, someone important to me passed away. Nothing that anyone said to me gave me comfort.

I appreciated the thought behind a lot of what a lot of people said to me. But nothing gave me comfort.
posted by Flunkie at 5:30 PM on March 21, 2013 [5 favorites]

I lost my father just two weeks ago. The most comforting thing - for me, and really, everyone is different, I've seen that very clearly in the last two weeks that people like different comforting - but for me, was no words. Flowers surprised me by being much more comforting than I thought they would be. Likewise cards.

If spoken, a simple "I'm sorry for your loss". For me (everyone is different) talking to strangers or near-strangers/acquaintances about this deeply intimate loss when I was still working out how to process it myself was the last thing I wanted to do. Felt ghoulish and annoying. But some people really like that so ymmv.
posted by smoke at 5:34 PM on March 21, 2013

I don't think there is anything better than a kind hand (or hug) and giving someone the opportunity to quietly (or not so quietly) cry....
posted by HuronBob at 5:39 PM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

My great-aunt, to whom I was close, died recently, and for various reasons, including her wishes, I wasn't able to visit in the last few months of her life. It was really comforting to hear that she appreciated my phone calls. Part of my grief was a feeling that I could/should have done more (not really true, I think) and it helped to hear that she had felt good about what I was able to do.

I know that when my grandmother died, my mother had some similar feelings. She was at the hospital as much as she possibly could be, but she still felt strongly that she had not done enough. I think it would have helped her to hear someone involved in the care tell her that she had been there for her mom. She absolutely, completely was... she just needed to hear that from someone else.
posted by snorkmaiden at 5:56 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

The most comforting thing for me when my father passed was the people that didn't need me to comfort them. The number of his friends that would come up to me, wish my condolences and then start crying or saying how sad they were and it seemed like they expected me to comfort them. It made me very angry at the time.

The ones that made me feel the most comforted, where the people that didn't want to suck energy from me at a time when I had none to spare but would offer a quick "I'm so sorry" and maybe a nice short story about something silly, amusing, typically my Dad kind of thing, to let me know we shared memories.
posted by wwax at 5:58 PM on March 21, 2013 [14 favorites]

I remember the most touching thing, that truly comforted me was after my mother died, was said just after I had to return to work.

Amongst the colleagues that tried to comfort me with 'so sorry for your loss' 'how can we help?' [which was kind, appropriate] was one woman with whom I'd worked closely, and who, as we worked together, had seen the long cancer journey unfold. She just said quietly, 'your mother must have been so very proud of you. I am proud of you' - in the moment it was the most comforting feeling. To acknowledge the relationship between me and the person who had died as being a special one was a really powerful thing.
posted by honey-barbara at 6:00 PM on March 21, 2013 [87 favorites]

I lost my mom - the sorry for your loss line is fine, but comes across as impersonal after you've heard it 50 times. I was most touched by short personal stories about my mom (the funny ones were also a nice mood lifter with all the crying I was doing around then). I also liked hearing things the person had heard my mom say about me (like you're mom was crazy about you or she was so proud of you).
posted by cecic at 6:10 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

Happy, funny, or moving stories about the deceased were the most comforting, or even thirdhand compliments like, "She sounded like an amazing woman" from people who hadn't met her but had heard about her through me.

"I'm so sorry" was next best, because it was an acknowledgment that did not require any response but "Thanks" but still opened up the possibility for a conversation if I wanted one.

No one ever said, "Tell me about her," but I think I would have liked that. I noticed that that's what I did, anyway, when someone gave me the opening. I know others might not want to talk, so maybe "I'd love to hear more about her, if you want."
posted by jaguar at 6:17 PM on March 21, 2013 [30 favorites]

I recently lost my grandmother. She was in hospice for her final days. It was most comforting for me to hear that my visits and calls made her happy. It was also nice to hear about her visits with the rest of my family, especially one time my sister visited and talked about memories. I'm told my grandmother smiled at those.

It's nice for people to say the typical things like they are sorry for my loss, and I appreciate it but it didn't bring comfort. I think I received the most comfort from the hospice workers when my grandmother was still alive. They were so great with her, with the way they interacted, so I knew she was in a good place. Anything said after she passed could not bring comfort the same way as knowing that her final days were as comfortable as possible.
posted by veerat at 6:26 PM on March 21, 2013

If you were close enough with the deceased to know these things, telling their families how much they appreciated their phone calls/birthday cards/visits/existence throughout their life (not just directly before their death) could be very comforting.

Also, what jaguar said—offering them a pressure-free opportunity to tell you about the deceased and what they loved about them.
posted by cheerwine at 6:26 PM on March 21, 2013

I think it was more the timing than the phrase itself, but "My thoughts and strength are with you" was something that stuck out as helpful once.
posted by wiskunde at 6:34 PM on March 21, 2013

When my father died, a casual acquaintance sent me a very kind note describing how he'd lost his father several years ago, but still thought about him every day. I found it comforting to be reassured that I wouldn't forget him, that the love I had for him wouldn't fade with time.
posted by bac at 6:37 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

My friend just lost her son. She quoted this: I said goodbye, others are saying "Welcome!"
posted by Lornalulu at 6:38 PM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

When my mother passed five years ago, a colleague of mine sent me a heartfelt and touching email. He said :

"I heard of your family's loss, and I wanted to express my condolences. My own mother passed a few years back, and if I can offer you a bit of advice from my own experience, it is that the sadness that you're feeling right now doesn't last forever. It may not seem like it at the moment, but take it from me, it does get easier."

He was right, and I did take comfort in knowing it.
posted by deadmessenger at 6:42 PM on March 21, 2013 [11 favorites]

I think you'd be taking quite a chance by offering an opportunity to tell you about the deceased and what they loved about them, whether you think you're doing so in a pressure-free manner or not. I am certain that I would have felt quite on the spot and uncomfortable by being told "I'd love to hear more about her, if you want", or anything like that. My reaction would have been a confused and pressured internal gauging of whether or not it would be socially acceptable for me to tell this person what I would want to tell them, which would be "I absolutely do not want."
posted by Flunkie at 6:46 PM on March 21, 2013

The most comforting thing someone told me was that I could call them or come hang out some time to talk if I wanted to. It made me feel like they understood my grief, and the offer of future support when I would need it was better then spontaneous heavy support
posted by cacao at 6:52 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is more about how to cope with grief than something you'd say to a bereaved family member, but I experienced a huge and deeply personal loss earlier this winter, and reading this on another forum was one of the ONLY things that helped.
"When I lost my first husband, someone told me to think of my grief and tears as a bucket. I think of this often and tell other people going through a death or loss. When it first happens, the bucket overflows several times a day. Over time, you have to empty the bucket less often but you still have to empty it.

Take good care of yourself. Don't be hard on yourself for what you did or didn't do. Go do something you really enjoy or something totally new. Rent movies that make you cry. Rent movies that make you laugh. Find someone you can talk to. Try a grief group. Try a therapist. Buy yourself flowers. Take care to empty your bucket every so often."
posted by anderjen at 6:53 PM on March 21, 2013 [31 favorites]

When an older colleague's son (who was my contemporary) died in a freak accident thing I wrote him a card that he told me really affected him. I told him that I knew his son knew how much he was loved and adored by his father because of the way and stories his father told about him. Because my parents talk about me the same way and I know how deeply loved I am. It meant a great deal to him which made me happy.
posted by atomicstone at 7:06 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

I like the idea of adding in "so very" to make it "I am so very sorry for your loss", and then adding something personal, "she always had such a wonderful smile to greet me with every time I checked on her," or some other small detail to make it seem that the deceased was an actual person to you.
posted by Vaike at 7:20 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

When my mom passed away, a good friend said, "it's just not fair." It was so refreshing to hear that among the usual sorry for your loss type stuff.
posted by thank you silence at 7:25 PM on March 21, 2013 [6 favorites]

Also, after my mom died one of her friends called me and shared some memories she had of my mom, things which I didn't know had happened. It was very comforting to know that my mom had made an impact on other people and that they were hurting too.
posted by thank you silence at 7:30 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

My wife died at the beginning if February. The best thing anyone has said to me is, "I don't have any words to offer, but I can listen if you'd like."
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 7:39 PM on March 21, 2013 [54 favorites]

Keep it honest. Don't say "I can listen" or"I can help" unless you actually have your afternoon blocked off to do so and only if that offer coming from you would be welcome to them.

"I'm sorry for your loss" does no harm, unlike most things you could say.
posted by justsomebodythatyouusedtoknow at 8:32 PM on March 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Say what you feel. If someone meant something to you, say it. "I'm sorry for your loss. Your mother was truly special and I'll really miss the way she....(fill in the blank)."

Remember that they don't know how you express condolences to other people. They only hear this one. So while it may feel same-old, same-old, it really won't be.
posted by inturnaround at 8:40 PM on March 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

I came here to say what honey-barbara said.

Last year, a friend of mine died suddenly at age 36. I sent her mother (who I haven't seen for about 15 years) a card, saying that the abiding memory of my friend was her love for her family, and that she always spoke so wonderfully of her parents and brother. I had second thoughts about sending it, as I hadn't been close to either the friend or her family since I left our hometown 20 years ago. Months afterwords, my friend's mother approached my mother in the street and told her how much those sentiments meant to her.

I was so glad I took the time to find out her address and write down the lovely things that her daughter said about her.
posted by Salamander at 9:47 PM on March 21, 2013 [9 favorites]

The thing I appreciated most were the people who, as wwax put it, didn't seem to expect me to comfort them. For me just the simple 'I'm sorry for your loss' was all I needed, because there wasn't anything else they could do.
posted by winna at 9:59 PM on March 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

My father's mother died at the end of last year. His wife told me recently that I said to him the best thing he heard at the time: "she loved you so much and was so proud of you." My dad had always been the black sheep, different from all 6 of his siblings, and me saying that helped him know that to his mother, that didn't matter.

Of course, that is something you can only say if you know it to be true, and have good knowledge and understanding of the relationship.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 10:36 PM on March 21, 2013

My best friend (more like a sister) died in a car accident when we were 21. The moment that stuck with me was when an acquaintance (who knew us both) asked, "Wait, what was her full name?" After I answered, she said, "OK. [Full name]. I'll pray for her, and her family." I don't pray, and neither my best friend nor I believed in god, but I believed the acquaintance at that moment. There's a lot of power in a name, and a largely un-acknowledged fear that your loved one will be forgotten. Now, when I hear that someone has lost a friend or family member, I make a point to ask their name, and let them know that will be in my thoughts.
posted by samthemander at 10:52 PM on March 21, 2013 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks to all of you for your candor on a really painful topic. Grief is so personal - all of these are "best answers". I'm learning from each and every one of your comments.

I'm so sorry for all these losses.
posted by Lately Gone at 11:02 PM on March 21, 2013 [4 favorites]

I'm not religious or spiritual at all, but I have a friend who is very religious and when my grandmother passed, my friend told me that my grandmother was looking down on me and that she was in a better place.

I never in a million years would've thought that that would have been a comforting statement to me, but it absolutely was.
posted by lea724 at 6:14 AM on March 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

Sorry to contradict lea724, but...

My friend just lost her son. She quoted this: I said goodbye, others are saying "Welcome!"

Please reserve such things for people whom you know to have a belief in an afterlife. When I lost several family members in quick succession, even though I knew that the people saying it meant well and intended to be comforting, every "She's become an angel in heaven," and "He's with Jesus now," and "God choose this time to take her into His arms," was another twist of the knife for me.

That's one of the reasons why "Sorry for your loss," is a standby.
posted by BrashTech at 8:39 AM on March 22, 2013 [54 favorites]

I lost my mother and my grandmother and I cannot remember being comforted very much by what people said. A few years ago my best friend growing up died very suddenly and very young. We'd grown apart, I had not been in touch with her for many years although the family is close to mine so I kept getting news of her every now and then. I sent the family my condolences on a slightly unusual card depicting a scene I thought she'd have appreciated. I simply told them how sorry and shocked I was and that I'd never forget my friend or us growing up together. Many months later, her mother invited me over when I was visiting my hometown. As I'd not been able to attend the funeral she shared photos and stories with me. She also wanted to pass some momentos to me. These include one if my friend's books, we were both avid readers. Her mother had prefaced the book with a personal message, which referenced some of the words in my card, and had also glued some photos of both of us, taken 20 years earlier when I had accompanied them on holiday, into the cover pages of the book. My little message, which had felt inadequate when wrote it, had meant a lot to my friend's mother.
posted by koahiatamadl at 8:57 AM on March 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

My dad died four years ago, and it really meant a lot to me when the staff at the nursing home said, "He was such a nice man" when we went to pick up his things. Because he was, even though they'd really only known him when he had dementia and was bed-bound.

I found that many people didn't know what to say because he'd been ill and slowly fading for years, so there was this sort of assumption that we were emotionally prepared for his death. Maybe my extended family members are particularly lacking in empathy (I wouldn't be surprised), but I suspect this happens a lot and my other suggestion would be to remember not to carry this assumption.

Honestly, the best thing anyone said to me was my sister-in-law's, "Welcome to the dead dads club" comment as we were going to pick out flowers for the casket, which made me smile for the first time since I got the news. Not something you could say to just anybody, though.
posted by camyram at 9:15 AM on March 22, 2013 [10 favorites]

My grandmother died just before Christmas. The most comforting thing I heard was "You can tell me a story about her, if you want. I like stories." For me, it worked because it left room that I might not want to tell a story, and included assurance that my friend would enjoy the experience of talking about her.
posted by donnagirl at 10:51 AM on March 22, 2013 [7 favorites]

I think it will depend on the impact the event has to the person in question as some people were not in a good relationship with the deceased.

When my Dad died, a family friend's comment that she "still missed her Dad, even 30 years later because there was never a replacement for him in her life: there was so much she wanted to share with him, even to this day." was so good to hear and it's still true for me.

When my hubby became critically ill and did not survive, there was nothing anyone could say to bring any relief. But, it helps nowadays if someone mentions him kindly because most people have either forgotten him, or must assume I've forgotten him (or that I don't miss him every day.)

When my mother-in-law died, there were the entirely appropriate, sorry for your loss comments, which was fine.

When my friend's abusive father died, there was no need for condolences, but it was important to acknowledge her feelings.

I think one good strategy is to start with somethng on the ordre of "sorry for your loss" and then follow up with an open-ended comment such as "how are you doing?" if that seems appropriate.
posted by mightshould at 11:19 AM on March 22, 2013 [3 favorites]

My brother died in his sleep 10 years ago this November and out of all the condolences I received there is only one that still sticks in my head after all this time, I think because it just made me feel so loved during such a terrible period in my life.

An older lady I worked with (I was 21 at the time he died) came to me at his funeral and said, "You know, I never met your brother but if he's anything like you then I loved him too."

I still tear up a bit when I think of the look on her face as she said that.
posted by Anizev at 3:09 PM on March 22, 2013 [81 favorites]

This was on a sympathy card I received when my mom died. It meant more to me than the other generic lines, an it works even if you don't know the deceased or the bereaved very well.

"I wish you (ow hope you'll find, or whatever) the peace and comfort she would have wished for you."
posted by TrixieRamble at 3:37 PM on March 22, 2013 [8 favorites]

After a friend's suicide, a friend wrote to me that "Wherever he is, he's okay." At the memorial gathering his father said "We don't need to worry about him," meaning the same thing.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:11 AM on March 23, 2013 [2 favorites]

I always make a point of telling families that they did a great job of caring for, loving, being there, whatever for the deceased. I see a lot of guilt and I want them to know that they did the best they could and it's ok.
posted by yodelingisfun at 8:35 PM on March 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

A friend at work had her son die completely unexpectedly at age six or seven.

Our mutual boss said something to her that struck both her and me when we heard it: "However much you can, think about the wonderful years you had with him, rather than dwelling on the future years lost. We're all lucky for whatever time we get together and you had a wonderful life with him. Try to focus on that as much as you can."

She said it was comforting to her when almost nothing else was.
posted by precipice at 7:12 PM on March 28, 2013 [3 favorites]

The only thing that helped me a little when my stepfather passed away (an amazing man that got me started on computers 25+ years ago) was seeing the number of people that showed up at his memorial services (this is half of a failed panorama shot and I lost the other half) and watching not a single grown man that came to speak being able to talk more than a minute without bursting into tears.

The number of people that came made me feel better as it showed me how many people he had touched, and the crying speakers made me feel less alone as I sobbed like a little girl with a lost puppy (which I had started long before at his inurnment).

Almost nothing all of the people that came up to talk to me actually had an impact either way, frankly.
posted by Samizdata at 7:30 PM on March 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

"That's one of the reasons why "Sorry for your loss," is a standby."

Most of the time, but not always. I work for a non-profit that deals with the families of very sick children from all over the world, and it is a tragic inevitability that a few die. We have been told by professional grief counselors and hospital chaplains that Muslims (among others) do not view the soul's ascendance to heaven as a personal loss. Granted, most rational folks are aware that saying "I'm sorry" is not intended as hurtful, but nevertheless we have been coached to be cognizant of this. (Muslims are taught - if I have it right, and correct me please - to be patient, that the wisdom of the child's passing will be known with time.)

In these instances, saying things like "I'm sad I didn't get to meet him," "it sounds like she was very strong," or asking to hear joyful stories about the child is preferable.
posted by OHSnap at 11:26 PM on March 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

My mom died unexpectedly last July. I would have liked more people to acknowledge how much it sucked and how unfair it all was. All the usual condolence and loss words are kind, and they didn't make me unhappy, they were just.. bland. I liked hearing about what they were going to miss about her, or a quick funny, or memory were really great to hear.
It's still really fucking unfair.
posted by ApathyGirl at 2:53 AM on March 29, 2013 [4 favorites]

When someone dies, we hear the same things over and over from everyone. If you really knew anything about the person, instead of the "I'm sorry for your loss" sort of boilerplate, try to say something more concrete.

"We used to [sit/stand/walk] here and [watch birds/do crosswords/talk about grandchildren/walk around the garden/etc.] together. I remember him laughing when he talked about [...]."

"He always loved to tell us about [his grandchildren/his garden/you/etc.]. When I think of [X], that's what I'll remember, his happy face when he sat right here telling us about [you]."

"We would get big cups of hot tea and just enjoy the peace here for a minute under the tree. She wouldn't say much, just sit and [listen to the birds/enjoy the sun/sip her tea]."
posted by pracowity at 3:23 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

My go-to apart from the "Sorry For Your Loss" is "Wishing you Strength".
posted by lalochezia at 5:55 AM on March 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Many years ago my wife and I lost a child, who died the day of his premature birth. He had a twin sister who survived and is doing great. When I returned to work the next week my boss said simply, "I can't imagine anything worse." And at that point I had not realized that, myself. It was the most empathic statement anyone made during that time.

Later on, when I mentioned to this same boss one or another of the accomplishments of the surviving sister (something like, sitting up, crawling, whatever, at that stage), he said, "You know what, right now you think each of those things is just amazing, and it is. But what you're going to discover is that it just keeps getting better." And in truth, it did, and still does, three decades later.

So those two statements together formed the foundation of my perspective on the whole experience of losing one child while gaining (and then nurturing) another.
posted by beagle at 6:47 AM on March 29, 2013 [6 favorites]

My father died sort of suddenly (but not unexpectedly, if that makes sense) a few years ago and I got sort of tossed into the role of executor with some complicated bullshit almost immediately. It was not great and I felt unprepared and I was angry as well as upset. The comments that I still remember, nearly two years later, fell into three loose categories

- folks who mentioned my capacity for handling things and how like him that was and how he had admired that in me, sort of "you'll be okay" but with very specific outlines
- very simple statements from people I didn't even know that well who took the time to write a note or an email saying I was in their thoughts. I like "You are in my thoughts" as a way to get across caring in a non-specific way
- the email I got from my uncle a few days after it happened that just started "Ahhh, Jess, I’m so sorry to hear of Tom’s passing. It’s a great shock to lose a parent and I hope that you’re doing okay" which I've always loved because it sounded like him, acknowledged my surprise as well as my loss and his concern for me.

I still receive random reminiscences from people about my dad and now that I'm less angry and upset, I love hearing anecdotes about him even ones that don't necessarily show him in the best light because they seem true and honest. I'm always stupidly grateful when someone remembers him to me on Father's Day or his birthday for example.
posted by jessamyn at 7:43 AM on March 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Two weeks ago, the friend with whom I had the closest bond I've ever had with another human being, who was there when I changed from a bullied, lonesome kid into the guy am now, and who, with hindsight, I've since realized was my first love, was shot to death by a laundry basket in an absurd accident that could seemingly only happen in one of my stupid rambling stories and it's been so unremittingly painful that I have to keep reminding myself that this, too, will pass.

I've banished the melancholy music I normally love from my environment in favor of a constant bossa nova, but I cannot cha-cha the pain away.

I've written until I'm laughing and crying, taking advantage of the grief-driven time machine to carry me back to happier times, but when the stories achieve their fullest state of craft, the spoilers are still swinging my way in grand orbits perfectly to crush everything.

I've disappeared into Taoism, into the only philosophical system that's ever brought me solace, and I am surrendering to the superior force of the water that's carrying me where it will, but I feel like I'll drown, in spite of myself.

I can look back to all the other moments when life, luck, and mathematics determined that it was time for me to step forward into the next part of my life, shedding easy answers and denial like a slick, lifeless skin, but I don't want to be better, wiser, more thoughtful, or more aware of the grim calculus of the way things are. I want to be me, or the me I was two weeks ago, because sometimes the lesson just costs too fucking much.

It's funny how you can live language and love language and just revel in the impossible glories to be found in the whirl of words and still, it's just not enough, except for some of the old comfort left in the bitter summation of a favorite book—

So we beat on, boats against the current,
borne ceaselessly back into the past.

It'll pass, but fuck. How many times do we have to die inside before we get to live?
posted by sonascope at 3:08 PM on March 29, 2013 [21 favorites]

Now that I'm off the damn train, have recovered from another horrific public crying jag, and am in front of an actual keyboard instead of that glass horror on my idiotic little telephone, I should add something constructive.

My ex, with whom I have almost nothing in common but a peculiar and relatively icy nine year relationship preceding fifteen years of everyday friendship, was almost the only person in my entire circle of family and friends who had a grasp of what I needed to get through my worst stretch of grief thus far, when my father suddenly died in '98. I was surrounded by well-meaning people who just made things worse than I could have possibly imagined with a barrage of hugs and constant, invasive, disruptive presence.

See, the thing is, some people thrive on attention when they're in a funk, and that's a wonderful thing. I've often been the chosen counterfunk hug artist, and I'm happy to do so. Everyone wants to know they're loved, and I love the people in my life and am delighted to show them how much.

Some of us, though, have a grief process that's far more internal, and far more dependent on silence and alone time and music and thinking and thinking and thinking and roaming the house and just...being fretful and alive on our own.

My ex was perfect then as a human firewall, and he's been doing it again.

Maybe there's something wrong with me, but when I'm down, every time the phone rings, it's like an icepick in my ears. Every time someone's at the door, dour-faced or a bit overly full of companionship and cheer, I'm just angry.

"It's just that you're down."

"Yeah, I'm down because something awful happened. It'll pass."

Or they say, "we're concerned about you," which means (a) they think you're clinically depressed, which is, at least for me, something so different from a situation-triggered trip into the bottom of a deep dark hole, or (b) they think you might be suicidal, which is annoying, because if you say you're not suicidal, they hear that word and think "oh my, maybe he's suicidal!"

One would hope that people who've known me forever would know that I've always been more inclined towards genocide than suicide (I never, for instance, cried "I wish I was dead!" as a petulant kid—it was always "I wish you were dead, all of you, in a nuclear war which I would survive and then get to live in the mall eating Orange Julius all day"), but we've gotten acclimated to this zero tolerance policy of sadness coupled with oversensitivity about self-harm.

I'm fine. I'm fucking cored-out and hollow and hurt and angry, but I'm ultimately fine.

I'm not the one who died.

So my ex became my bar bouncer in '98, keeping friends and family at bay, stopping in to ask if I needed anything from the store.

"More scrapple and Totino's Party Pizzas, please."

"Combination or cubey pepperoni."

"I surrender to your whims in that regard. Oh, also ice cream."

The blue days turned to blue nights, blue mornings, blue clouds that came and went, and soon enough, it was back to blue skies, shining on me, nothing but the blue skies do I see, with storms at greater and greater intervals.

The pain never subsides, as it happens. You just get bigger than it is, and better at controlling when and where it revisits you.

I'm an exception to the rule, a ragged crow landing in a field of sunflowers, but it takes all kinds to make a world, and sometimes, if it seems like someone who's hurt is retreating from the world, it may be that they're spreading those dark, shiny wings, too, just long enough to tuck in, folding up around themselves for an escape to that dark, quiet place contained within the realm of one's own self where the calm lies.

It's worth watching out, just in case, but from a moderate distance.

It'll pass. I'll listen to this song four hundred times, and it'll get a little bit better.

I'll be okay. Not yet, but I will.
posted by sonascope at 4:07 PM on March 29, 2013 [22 favorites]

I lost my mother when I was in my 20s, and it hit me pretty hard. I took some time off work and when I came back, an older Bulgarian guy at the office just looked me up and down and gave me a big hug; didn't say a word. I remember it to this day, about fifteen years later. Sometimes, no words are necessary. We are so afraid to touch each other these days, and we've lost something.

Cheers, Dimitri, wherever you are.
posted by Kafkaesque at 4:40 PM on March 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

It really doesnt matter what you say, as long as you are there, and you say it and let them know you are there for them.
posted by entee at 5:22 PM on March 29, 2013

Although I read it 12 years ago, I was definitely comforted by this line from Sandman:

"You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime."

Nice to think that while a life might seem too short in the moment, it was, in fact, entirely complete. People seemed to appreciate it.
posted by lumensimus at 7:32 PM on March 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

When my father died, it was this passage out of Hamlet that helped the most:

Your father lost a father,
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow. But to persevere
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief.
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschooled.
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'Tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd, whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corse till he that died today,
'This must be so.'
posted by anangryfix at 4:39 PM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

The most comforting sentence I've ever heard regarding loss of a loved one comes from George Hrab. He's specifically talking about how non-believers handle loss without the theoretical comfort of imaging the loved one in some version of an afterlife. I'm paraphrasing, but here it is:

"The small comfort, the little bit of reassurance that I can take with me, is that I'm the one that gets to miss him. He doesn't have to miss me. He's going to close his eyes, and think maybe we'll go for a walk tomorrow. That's his eternity. I get to shoulder the burden of missing him, because he's done. He doesn't have to struggle with that."
posted by lazaruslong at 4:58 PM on March 30, 2013 [20 favorites]

My uncle, Albert Crary, was an extraordinary man. Not only was you he an explorer and scientist of both poles (The Crary Mountains in Antarctica were named by him and the A.P. Crary Science and Engineering Center at McMurdo Station was named fo him) but he gathered stories like no one I've ever met. At his public memorial in Washington DC at, I believe, the Cosmos Club, speaker after speaker got up and told about his staunchness, his incredible endurance, but most importantly, they all told a funny story about him: The time he fell off the ice shelf and what he said to the preacher after his rescue when the preacher came looking for a good sermon. The time he went shopping for supplies in South America when they were running a geophysical line across a South American swamp. The time my father put my brother up to calling him and acting like a dumb reporter asking the stupidest questions imaginable about the ice island T3.

Months later, we had a private memorial in his hometown of Canton, New York. One-by-one his nieces, nephews, in-laws and friends got up and told more stories. To all of us he'd been the source of fun, support and laughter when we were growing up - he never let any of us take ourselves too seriously, but he was always there when anyone needed help. When my turn came, I got up, told my story and then said this:

Everyone deserves an Uncle Albert, we were just fortunate enough to have had one.
posted by BillW at 5:23 PM on March 30, 2013 [5 favorites]

After my mother died from Alzheimer's, one of her care-givers said something that helped me immeasurably:"Your mother was always in a happy place." Also, another of the care-givers expressed how much she would miss her, because "...she was so sweet...", and teared up a bit when she said that.
posted by dbmcd at 7:01 PM on March 30, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a passage that I found when my old dog died. It is about animals. I know you are asking about condolences for humans, and I am not going to be able to articulate what about this passage struck something in me or how it relates to human death. (I tried.) The closest I can get is to say that there are things in this passage we often express in a way that sounds much more trite. Something about having found ourselves here together in a situation none of us fully understand. Something about the deep tragedy of our situation even though it is magnificent and complete. Sorrow and grief for all of us passing through. I can't explain it, the best I can do is put it in front of you:
Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate of having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. They move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.

Henry Beston, The Outermost House (1928)
posted by cairdeas at 11:39 PM on March 30, 2013 [11 favorites]

The most helpful thing when my mother died, and when it was obvious I was starting down a long, dark road of grief and anger, was a friend who reminded me "it's OK to feel good sometimes." Meaning, get off the road once in awhile. Watch Blazing Saddles, find a puppy to play with, play croquet and drink gin & tonics with your friends -- anything, really, that gives you a reason to laugh and enjoy yourself, even if it's only for a little while. That bit of advice, to give yourself permission to feel what you feel, was sort of eye-opening and actually helped me a lot.
posted by That's Numberwang! at 12:07 AM on March 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

I second KathrynT. When my wife died unexpectedly last year, the simple clichés were no longer clichés. For example I remember an older guy I worked with, (but with whom I was not particularly friendly) stopped, looked me in the eye and said quietly, "I'm sorry for your loss". This moment of simple dignity, genuine human-to-human contact, and the recognition that there really isn't anything anyone can say, was very meaningful to me. Older generations knew there was value in the simple formalisms.
posted by anguspodgorny at 3:44 PM on March 31, 2013 [2 favorites]

I lost my father, who I've talked about on here several times over the years, rather suddenly last week so I'm in the middle of this right now. These are probably more suited to a parent and particularly my father, a public figure...

Things that have been comforting: "Your dad was a great guy." "Your dad was so proud of you, he talked about you all the time." "Thank you for sharing your dad with us." "Seriously, what can we do to help your mom?"

Things that haven't been particularly helpful, though I'm not blaming people for being at a loss for words: "I'm sorry for your loss." and "Your dad's in a better place now."
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 9:52 AM on April 1, 2013 [2 favorites]

My father died a couple years back, unexpectedly. I was lucky in that I was home at the time, and I could see him before he died. Condolences and 'sorry for your loss' really did take on meaning, it wasn't just a trite thing. In a way, you can feel that the person saying those words is saying them because they, too, have no way to say anything more than that, though if they could, they would. I'm not sure how much sense that makes. It's like they're doing the best that they can, and that effort is something, and it does help.

Still, personal stories, memories, those things were the most helpful to me. Cleaning out my father's house, a friend of his stopped by one day, and turned three days work solo into about five hours. He brought over a cooler of rootbeer and a couple beers. When we took a break, we had some rootbeer and he told me stories. When we finished, we had a couple beers, and I told him stories. It was guy I hadn't seen since I was in elementary school, but he took the time, made a pretty huge effort, and he listened, but he also put me in a situation where I was the listener, and it helped me to understand that the loss wasn't confined to just me, or to just my family.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:56 PM on April 1, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember after my dad died, a colleague coming to my office door and saying, "I just heard," as her eyes filled up. Then she sat down by my desk and said "I don't even know what to say to you right now" and she started to cry. And I started to cry. So we cried together. But I loved that combination of not knowing what to say and coming in and sitting with me anyway. I've never forgotten it.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 6:50 PM on April 1, 2013 [3 favorites]

When my much beloved Opa died, I was beside myself with grief. I was heartbroken and inconsolable, and platitudes just made it worse.

Then my friend came over and asked me if I remembered the first time she had met him. I did, and she told me everything she loved about that day and everything she loved about my Opa, and everything that he did that made an impression on her. Other friends followed suit. That, more than anything else, helped me so much, just knowing how much he meant to other people and how he influenced the other people I held dear.
posted by MissySedai at 7:21 PM on April 2, 2013

At the time that my dad died my friend Georgia was studying in Spain. She sent me a condolence email that started off with "I just spent two hours writing a long condolence email, and I hit send and then the internet just ate it" - this was back on webmail, years before emails were autosaved, when if the program crashed or hit a hiccup then what you'd written was gone permanently - "and I don't have the energy to recreate it. So I'm just going to write you a regular update email."

She went on to say that she was hanging out with some Spanish homosexuals who she didn't have a lot of overlap with, but they let her talk about her period, so it was at least tolerable, and in return she had to listen to their sexual escapades, which apparently involved a lot more "hot dog in the bun" than actual peneteration because of fears about AIDS. (I had never heard "hot dog in the bun" before, and some part of me still thinks of friendship as "people that well let me talk about my shit as long as I listen to them talking about their shit".)

Also, there was a woman on her block who had a pet ferret who she would walk around on a leash, and every time she would pass a fire hydrant she would have to yank the leash so high that the ferret would be dangling with it's feet off the ground because there were puddles of dog pee in front of every hydrant and the ferret would roll in them if she didn't physically prevent it from doing so. Then she closed by saying that she was looking forward to chicken nugget dinners again, since that was a thing we did together on Saturdays.

Although I didn't know who Almodovar was at the time, when I look back at it now I like to think she was sort of living in one of his movies.

Anyway, that was the thing that touched me the most, because everyone else was unsure of what to do and they were being very self conscious, but Georgia was being her normal self - and the fact that ferrets rolling in urine constitutes her "normal" should tell you something about her - and that meant more to me than anything else. It was one of the funniest things I've ever had show up in my inbox at a time when I really needed it.
posted by Kiablokirk at 12:36 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Connect and keep it very simple. Let them lead. They already know how sorry and helpless you feel. Don't make them *host* your feelings, too.

If you do not know the deceased: "What was his name?" -- a brief, simple, but intimate moment suffices. If the person seems like they can talk, "what was he like?"

If you know the deceased: "He loved you so."
posted by antipode12 at 9:46 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

This wasn't spoken directly to me, but when my much-loved grandfather died a couple years ago after a long illness, the thing that comforted me most was this line from "Amazing Grace":
When we've been here ten thousand years, bright-shining as the sun
We've no less days to sing God's praise than when we first begun

I don't especially believe in that sort of heaven nor in a god who wants constant praise, but somehow that line triggered a revelation: Aha! I don't have to stop loving PawPaw just because he's dead. I can keep learning new things about him and loving him more for them, for as long as I live. And indeed, hearing new stories has helped.

Tell them something they might not know, however small. Give them a tiny bit more of their loved one to hold onto.
posted by hippugeek at 11:12 AM on April 7, 2013 [4 favorites]

I lost my father a month ago, today. At the wake, one of his old friends (whom I recognized and remembered immediately from my childhood) came up to me and said "Hey [exlotuseater], I'm so very sorry for your loss. You know, your dad was such a cool guy." This sort of blew my mind, and it really brought an unexpected warmth . . . my dad was cool, but my experience of his coolness was of a different order from what this guy was telling me. It opened up an entirely different perspective on my father.

Also, anything sincere and genuine, other than "It gets better" and other comments of that ilk.
posted by exlotuseater at 7:57 PM on April 10, 2013

Yesterday, a coworker said to me, apropos of nothing, "I'm sorry you're sad, Joe," and that was such a lovely thing. Sometimes, that's all you need.
posted by sonascope at 9:54 AM on April 11, 2013

My friend started with "Dude... FUCK!" and that was very comforting, oddly enough.

He also said: it's important to suppress your natural curiosity in these situations.
posted by and for no one at 12:02 AM on April 13, 2013

I realize that this isn't exactly what you asked for, but the book The Art of Comforting: What to Say and Do for People in Distress by Val Walker is a really good book on this topic. According to Publisher's Weekly, the book "is filled with clear examples and actionable steps that help readers effectively comfort those in need... The 'Words of Comforting' section explores what to say and what to avoid saying, both face to face and in writing."
posted by metabrilliant at 8:29 PM on April 15, 2013

In your situation, I've always thought that the best thing to say is a memory of a time when that person made you laugh or did something nice for you or something else that shows what a kind person they were. It moves away from platitudes to the specific.

The best thing a friend has ever said to me was, "I'm here for you."
posted by ITravelMontana at 10:52 PM on April 15, 2013

what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.

- T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets (#4, Little Gidding)
posted by jfuller at 8:20 AM on May 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My ex-girlfriend told me, "What happened to your mother was very sad." and she really meant it.

I cried bitterly, but it really helped. (And we'd already undergone a harsh breakup so it was nice of her...)
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:17 PM on May 22, 2013

My mom died young and her friends threw a party and they all went around and said little memories and quirks about her. Like one of her friends said that she was always talking about some book that she just read that "you HAVE to read." As someone said above, it is interesting to hear another person's take on a person that they know intimately in a different way than you know them intimately.
posted by mermily at 8:42 PM on May 24, 2013 [2 favorites]

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