How to say "I'm sorry" without actually saying it
December 8, 2007 9:21 PM   Subscribe

Alternatives to "I'm sorry..."

You know when you're talking with someone- a friend, stranger, business client- whatever, and the fact that they have lost a loved one or have had a very unfortunate experience arises mid-conversation? The common response is some variation of "I'm sorry."
I've never felt right saying it, even if I genuinely am sorry. It always sounded trite to me, and you know they've heard the same thing so many times before, perhaps it's lost its impact.

How can I express a feeling of sympathy or empathy without saying the words "I'm sorry"?
posted by TheGoldenOne to Society & Culture (35 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Don't worry about trite when expressing sympathy.

Facial expressions. plus a mix of:

Oh, how awful that must have been for you.
Oh, no.
I'm so sorry to hear that.
What a hard time it must have been.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:40 PM on December 8, 2007

"I'm so sorry for your loss" or "I'm really sorry to hear that" or "That sounds so hard" is usually what I say.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 9:47 PM on December 8, 2007

In all reality they have already heard everything there is about it, and you aren't hurting anyone by giving your condolences.

I've used the Contrite Face and the "I'm sorry for your loss" or "This must be difficult for you". All of these have been uttered at a wake or funeral. I don't know how to approach it after such an event, so I guess I'm in your boat.
posted by sanka at 9:53 PM on December 8, 2007

"That's terrible," when intonated properly and followed with something thoughtful, has always seemed somewhat more genuine than a hollow "I'm sorry for your loss."

However, offering to help the person going through the crisis in some way (when appropriate) says far more than any verbal expression of sympathy can. It depends on the person's particular situation, but offering to take them out somewhere to get their minds off it or cooking a meal for them can help. Regardless of what you might suggest, don't try to diminish what they feel; no matter what you do, it isn't going to make everything better.
posted by qz at 9:55 PM on December 8, 2007

Not sure there -is- one set answer that's appropriate for "a friend, stranger, business client," etc - maybe the "appropriate" expression of sympathy has to do with how well you know the person and how much you -want- to say. For instance, I do think that "I'm truly sorry" is good with people you're a little socially distant from - business clients, acquaintances, etc (I also like LM's "I'm so sorry to hear that," as it keeps people from responding "it's okay" as if you had been apologizing ... bah, I never know how to respond when someone does that). If I were the bereaved one and someone I barely knew tried to go much beyond that I would definitely chafe - because that's the LAST time when I'd want to deal with the obligations set up when someone makes claims to a greater degree of closeness than I really feel with them, if that makes any sense? On the other hand, if it were me, and a friend were approaching me after I'd lost someone ... well, "I'm so sorry" still would be appreciated, but particularly if they actually did what they could to make me -know- their sympathy was with me, called me or stayed up all night with me or sent me over a casserole with love in every bite or what what have you. I guess the words wouldn't matter so much as them making me feel like they're not just watching and wincing from the sidelines, but genuinely wanted to be right there next to me and to support me as best they could.

Anyway, if you'd like a few other things you could say, depending on the situation the one thing I'd suggest is to offer the other person a chance to talk about it if they want (AND if you're willing to listen) - if the person mentioned some particularly bad situation they'd endured, for instance, you might try "God, that sounds so awful, what was that like for you? (or "how did you handle it?" or "are you okay now?", etc). Try to make it clear that you genuinely ARE "sorry" for what they went through and aren't just mouthing the words in order to push past an awkward point in the conversation.

Um, well, that's all I have, but it's quite a good question and I'll be interested to hear what other people suggest, too ...
posted by zeph at 10:14 PM on December 8, 2007

If you genuinely do empathize with the person it will come across in your tone, facial expressions and body language.

I ask if there is anything I can do to help them through this difficult time. People often are told "I am sorry for your loss" but it is uninvolved. Offering support is more heartfelt in my opinion.

However, if the person is a stranger or not someone you are very close to then you may not actually feel much about their loss, it will come across in your body language and facial expressions too. Don't try to fake it, tell them you are sorry for their loss and thats all.
posted by Samsixty at 10:15 PM on December 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think the worst thing possible is to say nothing, not acknowledging the loss at all.

Since some people invariably do this, the fact that you care enough to say "I was so sorry to hear of your loss" is immediately an improvement.

In the last year, I've witnessed others saying "So sorry to hear of your father's illness/death...I've been through something like that myself and I know it isn't easy." That last part, "I know it's hard," seems especially valuable. I imagine that "I know it must be very hard," is a good thing to say if you can't yet say that you personally know it's hard.
posted by Miko at 10:17 PM on December 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

Don't worry too much about saying something fresh. It's not about your being fresh and original.

"I'm so sorry" is a fine response, especially if the person is telling you the sad thing in passing and doesn't seem to want to dwell on it. If they seem to want to say more, you can add "That must have been tough."
posted by ottereroticist at 10:19 PM on December 8, 2007

A more casual phrase I sometimes use is "That doesn't sound like a lot of fun."
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 10:21 PM on December 8, 2007

I don't say "I'm sorry" in those situations either, because I don't feel that it's genuine. I usually say something like "Oh, really?" in a sad way or something like "That's too bad."

I actually didn't understand why most people say "I'm sorry" when I told them something bad that happened to me for a long time, until I learned more about linguistics and "speech acts". Basically, by saying "I'm sorry", you are conveying a sort of "I feel your pain" idea, giving the person the sense that their unhappiness is making you unhappy.

Not to be sexist, but this seems to be a bigger deal for women than men. Men tend to react to a statement like "My back has been hurting for the past few days" with a response like "You should go have that looked at", whereas women tend to reply with something like "I'm sorry, I had some problems with my back a while ago too".
posted by burnmp3s at 10:21 PM on December 8, 2007 [2 favorites]

I usually offer them hugs, which often helps. But I'm a huggy person, so YMMV.
posted by divabat at 10:37 PM on December 8, 2007

Per burnmp3s, some people think "I'm sorry" means "I am responsible for what happened."

It doesn't have to mean that. It can mean "I am saddened that you have endured a difficult experience. I understand your sorrow and I share in it with you."
posted by Miko at 10:38 PM on December 8, 2007

A couple disconnected thoughts:

I've met a lot of people who respond to "I'm sorry" with "Well, it wasn't your fault." They don't seem to get that I'm just commiserating, not taking responsibility. I've found that "I'm so sorry to hear that" is a clearer expression when dealing with these people.

If you're actually friends with the person, or care enough to get into a bit of a conversation, I think zeph's right on to say that you should ask the person how they're doing. Especially if the sad situation is a current thing in their life, a simple "How are you holding up?" is perfect.

A lot of the potential responses you could give sound trite because they imply that you know what that person is going through. No matter how much empathy you've got, you can't really know what it feels like for that person. The key is to stop trying to get across that you understand (because you don't), and just be honest. "I can't even imagine what that must be like for you" gets across that you care and sympathize, without implying that their grief is a cookie-cutter experience.
posted by vytae at 11:18 PM on December 8, 2007

"How to say "I'm sorry" without actually saying it" [sic]?

I often start such necessary conversations, these days, with "I'm embarrassed..." As in:

"I'm embarrassed that it had been so long, since I visited your mother, who I knew was ill, [but now has died]. Perhaps you remember, as I do, that she was never one to condemn, and quietly hoped for people who would always be supportive, as friends, in her children's lives. I'd like to be a better friend to you, now, in her memory, than ever I was a friend of her children's, while she lived. And I am profoundly grieved at her loss, and the pain that represents, to you. ..."

"Sorry" looks backward, and hopes for forgiveness. I suppose it is OK as a generic expression, if you've no closer connection to someone, but your question implies that you do have such closer connections. Sometimes, to speak from your heart, you need to break from conversational conventions, but when you do, there are risks, and social norms to cross.

Yet, if you feel you must, for whatever reason, on the steps of a church, or in a receiving line, or in the lunch room at work, then my best advice is simply that you look into another human being's eyes, and say the simplest, least self-serving thing that comes to mind. And hope, that in breaking the awkward social generalities common in these circumstances, that you'll be appreciated for trying to be genuine, and for trying to confirm some deeper human connection.

And know, without reservation, that often, you won't be.
posted by paulsc at 11:18 PM on December 8, 2007

I usually offer them hugs, which often helps. But I'm a huggy person, so YMMV.

If you do take divabat up on the hug idea, while I do think that people who are open and warm enough to be able to offer hugs are awesome, I'd also like to point out that some people are sensitive about being touched. Me, for instance. If I were the "hug-ee" my reaction would VERY much depend on how close we were. I'm kind of weird about contact in general (putting a hand on my arm wouldn't be welcome, either, if we weren't close) and hugging in particular - even though logically I can appreciate the thought, emotionally I really, REALLY don't like it when I'm hugged by an acquaintance or even just a "casual" friend. For whatever reason those hugs make me sad: to me, hugs are so very special and comforting when they come from someone I actually feel close to, and maybe because of that getting one from someone I'm not close to just feels false and 'tainting,' almost a painful reminder of the distance I feel with them more so than anything else. On the other hand, getting an unexpected hug from someone who IS a close friend is one of the best things in the world, it's such a good, warm, happy feeling to realize they're okay with getting right up close to me despite me being (um, obviously ;) such an utter freak-bomb ...

I guess I'm just saying, think about whom you hug or touch. Some people love it but some of us will feel weird about it. At the risk of cheating some deserving people out of a hug, I'd recommend making sure you feel close with them (and vice versa) or know they're okay with touching before you go that route as a means of expressing sympathy ...
posted by zeph at 11:20 PM on December 8, 2007

Context is important here. If it truly is in the middle of a conversation—if the path of the conversation just happens to pass near the loss—and the experience isn't particularly recent, then "I'm sorry" and the proper facial expression is appropriate. I feel like it's easy to overdo sympathy in a situation like this. The person likely brought up the experience because it was important (personal) context for what you were talking about and wasn't looking to process or for sympathy. Of course each situation is different, and the person might be signaling something different.

For situations where it really comes up in passing, I think the best thing you can do is take that moment to acknowledge the loss, move on, and file the knowledge of that person's experience away for later. I think people who have experienced particularly unfortunate or traumatic experiences appreciate people who maintain an atmosphere of normalcy (i.e. no kid gloves) while also being aware of how that experience may impact their day-to-day.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:42 PM on December 8, 2007

I'd also like to suggest "Oh god" or "Oh, god, I'm sorry" in a heartfelt, hand-on-the-heart, left-head-tilt, mouth-slightly-agape way. There's something there that feels a little like you and the other person are on the same team, recognizing how awful and ridiculous it was that they had to go through that—as opposed to the I-can't-really-understand-what-that-could-have-been-like-what-WAS-it-like?-I-see-how-we-are-different kind of thing.
posted by wemayfreeze at 11:47 PM on December 8, 2007

If it comes up in general conversation, and I get the impression that the person would like to talk about it (and they often do), I take my cues from the information provided and their body language. If they say, "I lost my mom last week," I'll say something like, "Oh, I'm so sorry, had she been ill?" That leaves the door open to say either "Yes, she'd been suffering with cancer for a long time" or "No, she was fine one minute, then she was gone. Doctor said it was a blood clot on her lung." Sometimes they'll go into detail, and the best thing you can do is listen. If not, you can commisserate with a stock "I can't imagine how hard it was for you," or something along those lines. But I think that if a person brings it up in the first place it means they'd like to talk at least a little bit about the deceased or how they themselves are trying to cope, so it's nice to show some interest and encourage them to open up if they feel like it.
posted by Oriole Adams at 1:09 AM on December 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I say with feeling, "Shit." Or, "Shit. That sucks."
posted by nicwolff at 2:06 AM on December 9, 2007

"I wish you peace"
"I wish you strength"
"My thoughts/ prayers are with you"

Although I always feel anything I say in situations like this will be inappropriate or not enough, I know that it's important that the people you express the sentiments to know that you are there for them and you care. If the feelings are sincere it will show and be appreciated.
posted by louche mustachio at 2:49 AM on December 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Ha ha "I'm sorry" the two most USELESS words in existance. But the reason I find funny is that it is the only time I even use those words when I am actually sorry... So weird.

I think some people need to hear those two words as they visibly aren't soothed until you do. I always respond with "Oh *their name*,said with everything I could say and a big hug conveyed in my voice. At the same time I'm preparing what they need me to say. Or maybe they need me to just shut up and hug them.

I think it's always appropriate to show a deep compassion to anyone in those circumstances regardless of who they are. Just follow their cues and give them what they need.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 3:00 AM on December 9, 2007

The question isn't just about expressions of sympathy. It's about expressions of sympathy in casual conversation that is not about the tragedy. If a tragedy has just recently occurred and you're having a conversation about it, many of the above suggested alternatives are quite good. But if the tragedy is far in the past or the conversation is about something else and the tragedy just happens to come up, there's no substitute for "I'm sorry." It's simply the correct thing to say.

When these sorts of things arise mid-conversation, chances are that most of the time they wish they didn't have to tell you, but it's relevant to what they're talking about, so they feel they have relate the fact to you. They're dreading the exchange as much as you are. They hate the, "Well, my dad passed away a few years back." "Oh, I'm so sorry." "Thank you." bit as much as you do. It's awkward for everyone.

Saying, "I'm sorry," is the best thing you can say not because it offers enormous comfort to your friend/coworker/total stranger conversation partner, but rather because it's the easiest, least annoying way to get that exchange over with. It allows them to tell you the thing they need to tell you, allows you to express your sympathy in a socially accepted way and let them know that you understand, and then lets you both move on with what you were originally talking about without having to have a long conversation about the loss.

I have a lot of great stories about my mom, but in order to tell them, I often have to tell people that she died a few years ago. I HATE when people deviate from the script. It interrupts my story, taking away from what should be a good memory of my mom and polluting it with baggage about her death. I do not want to have a conversation about how sad I am that she died when I'm trying to tell a story about her insane collection of plastic airport gift shop snow globes. I want you to say, "I'm sorry," so that I don't have to delve too deeply into thinking about her death, and can instead think about whatever I was thinking about before. That's what "I'm sorry" is good for.
posted by decathecting at 4:06 AM on December 9, 2007 [7 favorites]

if it's someone i'm not close to, i say, "oh, i'm so sorry to hear that."
posted by thinkingwoman at 6:11 AM on December 9, 2007

"I'm sorry for your loss," is the traditional response. Perhaps we should look for additional ways to express the sense of caring for someone's grief, but this is the best we have right now. As long as it's sincere, it's appropriate. My mother died this week, and I have appreciated every single offering of sympathy. In fact, the kindness of my friends on the internets, strangers at the airport, people at work, etc., has been very comforting. I'm usually easily annoyed, but sincere offerings of kindness have been very moving.
posted by theora55 at 7:27 AM on December 9, 2007

I lost both my parents earlier this year, so I've heard a lot of "I'm sorry's" lately. I don't think of it as trite, but rather an appropriate response in a sometimes awkward situation. It's really not necessary to be especially erudite or invent something new to say, unless you really need or want to engage the other person in a conversation about their loss.

Example: My father died in July, then my mother in October. Hearing of this, my next-door neighbor tried to be sympathetic by saying, "You must feel like doubly an orphan now." A simple "I'm sorry" would have been quite enough.
posted by Robert Angelo at 7:37 AM on December 9, 2007

n-thing the advice on how your tone, facial expressions, and other body language will convey your intent. Also, you don't need to have anything more "interesting" to say than "I'm sorry." Sympathy and empathy are such complex notions that society has evolved a quick, easily understood way to get the point across.

Not that you would do anything like this, but many of the more "creative" ways I've heard to say "I'm sorry (for your loss)" have come across to me as dick remarks, e.g. "At least he died in his sleep, that's how I'd like to go." That's an especially egregious example, but all in all I'd be wary of trying to deviate from simply trying to expressing sympathy. You might accidentally come off like you're volunteering to "solve" or "understand" someone's personal problem.

I understand your urge to give people more special attention when it comes to expressing sympathy, and it might be the case that the best way to do it might not be able to be contained in one phrase. If you want people to feel better, then it should be a longer interaction. (Not that you don't already know this.) At the very least, you could try shoehorning in "I know this must be very hard for you."
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:48 AM on December 9, 2007

When my grandmother (who mostly raised me) died, I got bucketloads of "I'm sorry" from people I knew and people I didn't. I kept wanting to say, why are you apologizing? You didn't kill her! (I did, to my friends; I was seventeen. And hey, laughing meant I didn't cry. Grandma was big on the gallows humor, she'd have appreciated it.)

These days when people tell me about losses, I usually reply with something along the lines of "Oh no," or "Oh sweetie" (if I know them well), quickly followed by a "that's horrible," and if I think I can be useful, "is there anything I can do for you?" If they seem to want to talk about it, I ask what the person was like, because remembering peoples' lives is less painful than dwelling on the way they died.
posted by cmyk at 8:00 AM on December 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

I lost both my parents earlier this year, so I've heard a lot of "I'm sorry's" lately. I don't think of it as trite, but rather an appropriate response in a sometimes awkward situation.

I second this. There's a reason why formal formulas can be helpful -- and are often the best approach -- at times like this: I like to keep acquaintances at arm's length when it comes to deeply personal issues in my life. Yet at the same time, I realize that people feel callous if the don't show their sympathy. If they do it with a simple, not-too-invasive "I'm sorry," it lets me off the hook. They say their formulaic thing; I come back with a formulaic reply ("Thanks. I appreaciate that."), and we've both done our social duty. But if they say something more complex, I'll feel compelled to respond in kind, and I don't want to do that.

I'm making it sound cold, but "empty" social rituals are often less empty than we think they are. I genuinely like knowing that people care -- in the sense that they acknowledge me as a fellow human being; I also like knowing that they respect my privacy.

Naturally, you should approach this on a person-by-person basis. Everyone is different.
posted by grumblebee at 8:43 AM on December 9, 2007 [3 favorites]

I agree with grumblebee's take on it. "I'm sorry" is really powerful.

"That doesn't sound like a lot of fun."

Steven Den Beste's suggestion sounds terrible. I suppose any expression of sympathy and consolation should be welcome ... but for a person to console someone for a major loss with "that doesn't sound like a lot of fun" just seems immature and weird.
posted by jayder at 9:41 AM on December 9, 2007

"That must be rough" has the advantage of opening up two different conversations. If they want, they can take it as an invitation to talk about how they feel ("Yeah, it has been. You know, the worst part was...") But they don't have to — they can just acknowledge your sympathy and drop it ("Oh, I'll be okay. Thanks, though.")
posted by nebulawindphone at 10:03 AM on December 9, 2007

I usually say "I'm sorry to hear that" or "I'm sorry to hear that you're going through that" to avoid the whole 'Why, you didn't do it' response.
posted by vignettist at 10:14 AM on December 9, 2007

After the "oh wow, I'm sorry to hear that" bit, (if it is not mid-conversation backstory), another conversation-continuer is a sympathetic expression with "how are you handling it?" or "how have you been?" or "that can't be easy" or "that must be hard for your parents / mother." (I've overheard my friend who recently lost someone get a few "how are you sleeping?"s, more than I would've expected, but maybe people know she doesn't sleep well...?)
posted by salvia at 11:00 AM on December 9, 2007

Response by poster: Lots of excellent responses here, thank you.

From what I can gather, different folks want different things. Some want hugs, some want gallows humor (I'd probably be in that category, although I would never offer it up without knowing the other party very well), and others want the standard social dance of "I'm sorry" and "It's ok."

I think my favorite combination out of these responses is some variation of "That must have been / must be very difficult. I can't even imagine what that's like for you."
It expresses the sympathy and thoughtfulness that I was looking for while being less of a stock response.

(In response to paulsc's [sic]:
I purposefully place certain punctuation marks outside of quotations when the phrase in quotes does not match the punctuation I need to use to end the sentence. I picked that one up from Spanish, and I think it makes more sense, but that's just me.)
posted by TheGoldenOne at 11:54 AM on December 9, 2007

Hm. Interesting. When my dad died while I was 14, one of the worst parts of it was going back to school and having people say "I'm sorry" all day. It made me feel like a monster, honestly - like I was going to break down at any moment. Conversely, one of my casual acquaintances asked me why I chose to come back to school so soon. Weird question, right? But then we talked about how I couldn't stand being cooped up in the house, how my mom was doing, etc.

He's been my best friend for the last decade. Maybe not what you're looking for, but it was one of the few things that helped me get my head back on straight.

So that's what I would do. Just try to get them to talk about something - even if it might be painful. That said, a hug would have been great, too.
posted by McBearclaw at 10:38 PM on December 9, 2007

It's already been said, but allow me to reiterate, if you're trying to avoid trite don't say 'I'm sorry for your loss'. It's really just about the worst - and certainly much worse than a plain "I'm sorry".
posted by The Monkey at 1:46 AM on December 10, 2007

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