Ways to Show Sympathy

Losing a loved one, whether a spouse, child, parent or friend is never easy. Regardless of the circumstances, death is painful. As friends or family members of those grieving, it can be a struggle to find the right words or gestures to adequately express sympathy, but the most important thing to remember is to be heartfelt and sincere.

From sending cards and leaving comments online to sending flowers and doing household chores, there are many ways to offer comfort and support. Here are some ideas of things that you can say or do to support those who are grieving through this difficult time.

Show sympathy with your words

Kind, genuine and compassionate words can bring comfort to those who are grieving. It can be a note or memory left in the online obituary guestbook, a text or email, a card in the mail, a phone call or a face-to-face interaction. Keep in mind that many times people grieving feel very alone. Reaching out with words reminds them they are not isolated, alone or forgotten. Many read and reread the online comments or sympathy cards, sometimes for years to come.

As you express your sympathy through words, gestures of condolences, or actions, keep a couple of small tips in mind. Don’t compare grief (“I know how you feel…”). Each relationship, each person is unique. Allow them their own grief and give them compassionate support. Don’t use trite answers, don’t minimise their pain and don’t trivialise the experience or tell them to move on (“you can remarry,” “you have other children” or “it was just their time”). Instead, you could say, “I hate that you’re going through this difficult time,” or “This must be really hard for you.”

A grandfather and grandson share a photo album.

Continue to reach out

Even if many weeks or months have gone by, keep reaching out and offering your friendship. After the services are over, the mourner’s connections often come to an abrupt halt leaving them feeling abandoned or forgotten. Continue to reach out and offer comfort and condolences. Let the person know you are still thinking of them and caring for them in their grief.

A woman talking to a man with her hand on his shoulder while standing outdoor at service.

Share a memory

Share a sweet memory of the person who has passed away. Don’t be afraid to talk about them or say their name. You won’t remind your friend of their loss by talking about their loved one. Many are anxious to talk or hear about their loved one, but are afraid it may be awkward or uncomfortable for others. Hearing new stories, talking about old times or recalling their laugh or quirks may bring tremendous comfort to those mourning.

Three female friends sit outside smiling while having a conversation.

Provide a listening ear

Showing sympathy can go the other way as well. Listen. If they want to talk about their loved one, allow them. If they are sad, cry with them. If they are happy, laugh with them…it’s okay! If they are angry, let them express their feelings. You don’t need to have all the answers, sometimes a listening ear is what they need most that day. Just be real and allow them to be real with you.

Show sympathy through gestures

Many people choose to celebrate a loved one’s life through kind gestures. Flowers and plants are a common expression of sympathy and caring. Consider sending a symbolic plant or one that will last year-round indoors that will serve as a welcome tribute to the person who has passed away. Personalised or hand-written condolence cards with the plant or flowers can symbolise your affection for the person who has passed away and their family.

Other gestures may include a donation to a charity. Refer to their online obituary to see if a specific charity or beneficiary is recommended. Donating to charity in honour of a friend or family member who has passed away can bring a sense of peace and purpose to their loved ones. Acknowledging what was important to them still matters and continues to be important to those who knew and loved them.

Show sympathy through actions

As you watch those you love grieve, and as you yourself mourn a loss, you may feel helpless and unable to take away the pain or bring comfort. This feeling often compels people to express sympathy by doing something practical to help, and chances are, these acts of condolences will be welcomed.

If you want to help through action, be specific in your offers. “Let me know if/or what I can do to help” is a sweet sentiment, but many times those who have just lost a loved one feel as though they are drowning in all that needs doing or may not even know where to begin. Offering specific tasks may just be the lifeline they need.


Some practical ways to show sympathy through action:

  1. Offer to do yard work, such as lawn mowing or snow removal.
  2. Buy groceries. Check the refrigerator or pantry, then buy a few staples, especially if they have company from out of town.
  3. Assist with daily tasks (i.e., laundry, wash dishes, vacuum).
  4. Offer transportation or hospitality if they have out of town guests for the services.
  5. Sit with them and assist them in reconciling bills, utilities, financial papers, etc. This is especially true if the person that has passed away was not part of the same household and there is no one remaining in the household to manage those tasks.
  6. Provide meals.
  7. Take them to run errands, especially if they are elderly or uncomfortable driving.
  8. Get them outside. Getting fresh air, exercising and stepping away from the busyness is important and may be cathartic.

It’s tough to know what to say or what to do, but no matter how you express your sympathy, be sincere, listen and stay in contact. Be a caring presence in their life to offer encouragement and a shoulder to cry on, and let them know they are not alone.