I'm sorry for your loss.
November 7, 2018 9:48 AM   Subscribe

What is the history of this phrase? I noticed it first on crime dramas. It is an efficient way for professionals to say something with condolences without being overly invested in victim grief. But I've noticed many people in the insurance, rehab, funeral and medical community using it.

Was this particular phrase commonly used in popular culture before the CBS program "NCIS" or other police/law enforcement/medical shows? And in general, do people who hear it consider it a toss off, sincere or do they want to hear something, not really caring as long as it's an acknowledgement of their loss?
posted by CollectiveMind to Society & Culture (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It’s a pretty standard expression (along with sorry for your trouble) in Ireland.
posted by Iteki at 9:53 AM on November 7, 2018 [10 favorites]

I first noticed it on NYPD Blue, and it did stand out for me.

But also, back then I was young and hadn't experienced any family deaths, so the whole culture of what people say when someone close to you has died was unknown to me.
posted by Squeak Attack at 9:57 AM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

And in general, do people who hear it consider it a toss off, sincere or do they want to hear something, not really caring as long as it's an acknowledgement of their loss?

I used to think of it as a toss-off comment. I've come around to really feeling like it's an etiquette phrase like "Please" or "You're welcome" (which many people find is an odd thing Americans say, for what it's worth) where you want to acknowledge something but are maybe not close enough to the person to reflect on the deceased loved one or the feelings of the bereaved. I've grown to appreciate it. It's useful because it's NOT religious and is mannerly and direct.

In Judaism, we often say our own pro forma thing "May their memory be a blessing" which is nice but can seem religious to some people.
posted by jessamyn at 10:04 AM on November 7, 2018 [10 favorites]

I was raised to say this at funerals, starting in the late 70s, or "my condolences to you and your family." I do think it sounds more cliche now because on Facebook, etc., you tend to see a whole stream of them when someone dies which is somehow more obvious than the same phenomenon at a wake or funeral.

I will say that having lost my daughter, it's a vast improvement over "God needed another little angel in heaven" "God never gives us more than we can handle," "How are you holding up?" (not well), "I hope you will have another child," (I'll get right on that!) "I don't know how you can possibly cope" (uhhhnnnn no choice actually, or maybe I should be sobbing in a corner?) etc. "I'm so sad for you" did feel heartfelt but kinda put me in the position of feeling sad for making people sad...

in other words I'll take the nice neutrality of this one any day. There's a simple answer (thank you) and it acknowledges the situation without prying or making a huge deal of things.
posted by warriorqueen at 10:06 AM on November 7, 2018 [54 favorites]

Google ngram shows steady use of the phrase "sorry for your loss" from the beginning of its data in 1800, but there was huge growth in use of the phrase beginning in the early 1980s, and it's now very roughly 20-30 times as common as it was before. However, at least some (and perhaps most) of those historical usages were not referring to death, but rather to the loss of money or property.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 10:42 AM on November 7, 2018 [5 favorites]

I'm with warriorqueen. It's a simple statement acknowledging loss, usually by those not close. When it comes to losing a loved one, it is so much better than 98% of the other awkward comments.
posted by ReiFlinx at 11:00 AM on November 7, 2018 [4 favorites]

I'm in my fifties and I feel like I've been hearing this commonly for my whole life; however, it used to show up on condolence cards mixed in with other prose, and now I often see it on FB repeated dozens of times in a row with little or nothing else--just the bare statement, "I'm sorry for your loss." As weird as it seems, I have to agree that it is so much preferable to any of the more unfortunate "creative" things people come up with to say. Condolences are a minefield. Far better to be boring and safe and not inadvertently cause the grieving person additional pain.
posted by HotToddy at 11:20 AM on November 7, 2018 [3 favorites]

And in general, do people who hear it consider it a toss off, sincere or do they want to hear something, not really caring as long as it's an acknowledgement of their loss?

I have two answers—

1. It depends on who is saying it, and

2. I guess I don’t see why it can’t be both sincere and a toss off? For people who are not that close, it is an ideal phrase— they aren’t going through it with me (hence “my” loss), but they are recognizing that I am having a hard time that deserves comment and sympathy and possibly accommodations (like in the workplace). I think it is useful to have phrases that can function as placeholders— they can serve social and conversational purposes besides sincere emotion, but they are still capable of containing real sincerity and kindness when warranted. When my mother died, it would have made me completely miserable if work acquaintances who never knew my mother and barely knew me had tried to "really engage" with me. I don't want to talk about her final days with people who barely know where my inbox is in the mailroom, but it allowed them to mark the occasion without asking me to publicly perform grief.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 12:23 PM on November 7, 2018 [8 favorites]

After a death in my family, I didn't really care if it was deeply felt; I always treated it as sincere when it came up (e.g. with the gas company or whatever.) Why wouldnt' that person very briefly be sorry for my loss? And it gives them something to say to acknowledge that death sucks and is sad, without making either of us cry while dealing with the business of closing out the gas account. It felt... respectful of me and of my dad, who had died. So +1 to a fiendish thingy.

I do know people who feel kind of offended by the social convention, but I tend to value social conventions and small talk for their ability to help us get along, so take that for what it's worth.
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 1:06 PM on November 7, 2018 [12 favorites]

I really think NYPD Blue got the ball rolling on its widespread adoption.

Death is not a time to be coming up with creative expressions of your feelings, especially if you were not close to the deceased. There's a reason we have formulas.
posted by praemunire at 1:21 PM on November 7, 2018 [7 favorites]

I write something like this in cards for people (colleagues, acquaintances) when someone in their life has died. It seems trite as I write it, but honestly, what else can I say? I’m atheist, don’t believe in an afterlife. Don’t know if it was a long suffering illness, or something unexpected. Don’t know how close they were. Maybe they don’t even have great memories because of a strained relationship. All I can actually say with certainty is that they lost someone, that usually sucks, and I’m therefore sorry they’re going through it.

So yeah, trite, but the best I got.
posted by greermahoney at 1:47 PM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

I noticed increased use of the phrase about 40 years ago - it was an alternative to words of condolence that contained references to religion.

I wasn't aware that there was any backlash against it (for sounding trite, cliched) until I googled the phrase just a moment ago. I will happily take this cliche - be it toss-off or deeply felt - over an awkward attempt to be original. Grieving people aren't judging your creativity.
posted by she's not there at 1:53 PM on November 7, 2018

As noted above "I'm sorry for your troubles" and "I'm sorry for your loss" are pretty much direct translations from the Irish. Like a lot of directly translated phrases they sound vaguely like Yoda.
posted by fshgrl at 4:43 PM on November 7, 2018 [2 favorites]

First example in print is 1679 in a book by John Reynolds:
posted by metasunday at 7:43 PM on November 7, 2018

And in general, do people who hear it consider it a toss off, sincere or do they want to hear something, not really caring as long as it's an acknowledgement of their loss?

It sounds like the person saying it to you forgot who died and would rather be careful and 'correct' than risk making an embarrassing mistake. most people don't want any special kooky individual creative greeting card efforts in their time of trouble, I certainly didn't, but the people who said to me things like "I'm sorry your mother died" sounded much more like human beings.

(or "I'm so sorry about your mother" from the ones who had the deathword allergy that afflicts so many whose loved ones all somehow manage to depart, pass on, or leave them, like a rude guest slipping out of a party without saying goodnight, without ever outright dying. despite their strange verbal ways, these were also nice people.)

"I'm sorry for your loss" is what you get when you google what to say to someone recently bereaved, and write down the top result. and it sounds like it.

it is a lot better than nothing, I'll give it that
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:53 PM on November 7, 2018 [1 favorite]

This, along with, "[I/We're] keeping you in [my/our] thoughts" is the non religious way I express condolences. I feel like I've heard it my entire life. When said to me I find it so much better than anything that assumes my beliefs about the person, the death, or the afterlife.
posted by I'm Not Even Supposed To Be Here Today! at 10:23 AM on November 8, 2018 [2 favorites]

+1 on NYPD Blue. I'm almost positive that's where I picked up the phrase myself.
posted by Gelatin at 7:50 AM on November 9, 2018

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