The Dos and Don’ts of Expressing Sympathy

The Dos and Don’ts of Expressing Sympathy

‘Why does death make us so sad?’ One columnist for The Seattle Times posed that question in his piece. 

Everyone knows that they’ll have to leave the world of the living eventually, yet they can’t help but mourn over losing someone dear. It wasn’t until he lost a good friend from junior high that he got his answer; when a friend or relative dies, so too do precious memories of those they leave behind.

It challenges the notion that people grieve over a loss because they’ve shared beautiful memories with whom they’ve lost, though not making it any less true. Whatever the reason, experiencing loss can be an emotional time. If you want to show your sympathy for someone, you have to tread carefully. You don’t want to make the burden heavier than what they’re already carrying.

Fortunately, this article will make sure that you know the right and wrong ways to express support for someone going through a loss. With these tips, you may even ease a bit of their emotional baggage.

  1. DO Offer Sympathy Flowers

Humans have been offering flowers for the dearly departed for thousands of years, with the earliest recorded instance being 62,000 BC. Why they do so is still a mystery, but experts believe that it’s something to do with flowers and their symbolism of impermanence. Flowers will wither and die sooner or later, even with the utmost care.

However, flowers have also been a means of communication throughout history. One’s choice of flowers in a bouquet speaks volumes about the kind of emotion one wishes to convey. Given the right flowers, a funeral bouquet is a simple way to express sympathy—no words required. 

Below are a few appropriate flowers for the occasion:

  • Rose – A universal symbol of love and affection, it’s also ideal for expressing support for a loved one. Darker shades of roses can also signify sorrow.
  • White Lily – The purity white lilies represent makes them an acceptable flower. In this regard, purity refers to the soul as soon as it crosses into the afterlife.
  • Gladiolus – If the departed once served in a civic position (e.g., police officers, judges), offering gladioli can be seen as remembering their service to the country.
  1. DON’T Be Careless With Your Messages

Regardless of your feelings toward the person who just left this world, considering it a good thing is anything but fortunate. That person’s family is going through a great deal of sorrow, and you shouldn’t invalidate their grief. If being sincere is too hard for you, simply carry on in silence and offer a prayer for comfort to the loved ones left behind.

This especially applies to the bereavement messages you send with your sympathy bouquet. Cards that usually come with the flowers only have so much space, so keep your words appropriate and straight to the point. Some suitable phrases include: ‘In loving memory’ or ‘With condolences.’

Avoid phrases like: ‘Stay strong’ or ‘Everything happens for a reason.’ While the bereaved family needs to be strong, it’s inappropriate coming from any person, no matter how close they are. They need time and elbow room to process the stream of emotions resulting from someone’s death. The least you can do is allow them those things.

Don’t be afraid to send them condolences online, but be responsible about it. As soon as you learn of someone’s loss, send them an email expressing your sympathy and support. Follow it up with a physical condolence card a few days later. But don’t expect a reply, as they’re going through a lot. 

  1. DO Offer to Help (and Keep Your Word)

Offering assistance to the mourning family is a great way to express your support for them in these trying times. You can include messages like ‘Let me know if there’s anything I can help you with’ in your condolences, but you can do better.

According to Suzie Kolber, a writer for, such messages can be too ambiguous. People say such things to be appropriate more often than not, leaving the bereaved unsure if they’ll stay true to their word. It also gives the impression that you’re asking the family a question they’re in no state to answer (given the things that need doing at a funeral).

If you want to offer help and see it through, be specific. You can deal with the family’s household chores while they tie up any loose ends from their loss, like watching over the kids. In this case, don’t be afraid to be honest to kids when asked about the loss. It’s important that they learn about pain and grief to help them grow.


Death is too heavy for anyone to bear alone. You can share their burden, but make sure to respect their wishes while doing so. Be the pillar of support in their direst time, not an additional weight.

About the author
Mrs. Hatland is a 30-something married, mom of 7 and the face behind the popular online publication, Motherhood Defined. Known as the Iowa Mom blogger by her local peers and “The Fairy Blogmother” worldwide. She has professional experience in working closely with clients on brand ambassadorships, client outreach services, content creation and creative social media advertising exposure.

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