Family dynamics are the invisible force behind every caregiving journey

What to say to someone whose parent has died

A loved one passing away is one of the most difficult times in a person’s life. Whether it’s the passing of a close friend or relative, it will be one of the hardest and most emotional times one can ever experience.

Losing a parent is never easy, no matter their age or circumstance. Death is, of course, a natural part of life. But for some, that isn’t much help to the grieving friend or family member whose parent has just died.

For the people surrounding those who are grieving, it can be difficult to know what to say to someone who lost a parent.

To make matters more complicated, there isn’t one single statement that can make every grieving person feel better. Certain things might comfort one person while making another person feel worse. That’s why it’s important to use your best judgement when offering your condolences or comforting a grieving individual.

So, what do you say to someone who has lost a parent? Read on for some helpful suggestions on what to say to a bereaved person, how to say it in a way that conveys your true sorrow, and when to offer your condolences.

What to say to a grieving person

It's not easy to know what to say to someone who lost a parent

For the people surrounding a grieving person, there are many things that could be said. But what are the things that will actually offer comfort and let the person know you’re there for them?

At the end of the day, something as simple as “I’m so sorry for your loss” or “I’m so sad for you and your family, please accept my deepest condolences” is always appropriate. But you might want to offer something a little deeper than that, especially if you are close to the bereaved.

Generally speaking, make sure that what you say does at least one of the following: Acknowledges the bereaved person’s feelings and emotions, reminds them that you are there for them, or shares favorite memories of the person who has passed. Your condolences can do just one of those things, or several at the same time.

Acknowledge the emotion

The last thing that a grieving person wants is to have their pain downplayed or dismissed. That’s why acknowledging their emotions is such an important part of what to say to someone who lost a parent.

Trying to change that person’s emotion is not the way to approach it. While your caring and compassionate heart may want to cheer up the person, it’s best not to tell them to look for a “bright side” or tell them that their loved one is in a better place. Instead, offer condolences that acknowledge the grieving individual’s deep pain and heartache.

Try:

  • I can’t even imagine what you’re going through. Just know that I’m here to listen.
  • It’s OK not to be OK right now.
  • This is one of the most difficult things you can experience. I’m so sorry.

While someone who has lost a parent might find some comfort in hearing about your own similar loss, keep in mind that it’s not always helpful to relate your own experience with death or the loss of a parent to someone else’s situation.

In other words, you might not want to say, “I know exactly what you’re going through.” Instead, you may want to try saying, “I went through this with my mom/dad, and I know how painful it can be.”

Everyone’s grieving process is different, and what you’ve experienced in the past might not be the same as what the bereaved person is going through now. Much of this also depends on your level of closeness with the bereaved and how well you understand one another.

It’s also important to avoid assuming that you know the bereaved person believes in a higher power, unless you know them very well. Statements about “God’s plan” or “better places” might upset them.

Remind the person that you’re there for them

One of the most challenging parts of losing a parent — or any loved one, for that matter — is the sense of isolation and loneliness that can set in now that the person is gone. When offering condolences, simply reminding the bereaved that you’re there for them can be a huge help. It’s a way of offering hope for the future.

The key is to avoid placing the burden of responsibility on the bereaved themselves. Statements like “I’m only a phone call away” or “Call me if you need anything” might sound helpful in the moment, but it means that the bereaved person is the one who has to perform the action. They may not have the time or energy  in their period of grief.

Try reminding the grieving person that you’re there for them with statements like:

  • I will be here for you if  you ever need to talk or just need someone to listen.
  • I’ll come and stay with you for a few days if you’d like.
  • You don’t have to talk. I’ll just sit here with you.
  • I’ll call you in [a week, two weeks, etc.] to check in.

Of course, make sure you follow through on whatever it is you promise to do.

Share favorite memories

Telling the grieving person about some of your own favorite memories of the deceased is a meaningful and heartfelt way to offer your condolences to someone who has lost a parent. It turns the focus away from the fact that the person has passed away, and instead celebrates their life and the impact that they had on others.

Keep it simple and short. Brief but descriptive memories can mean a lot to those who are grieving. Here are a few examples:

  • My favorite memory of your dad was the time we went on a camping trip up north. I’ll never forget how kind and helpful he was that week.
  • I was a co-worker of your mother’s for 25 years. The thing I remember most is how she made everyone in the office laugh.
  • The thing I’ll miss most about Ben was his smile. He never failed to light up a room when he walked in, did he?

How to say it best

Two friends meeting for coffee

It’s not just about what to say to someone who lost a parent, but how you say it.

This line of thinking can apply to many situations, and comforting someone who has lost a parent is definitely one of them. It’s important to pay attention to how you’re offering your condolences, not just what you’re saying.

First of all, don’t avoid talking to the bereaved. Yes, it can be an uncomfortable and even awkward situation, but avoiding them entirely doesn’t help.

You can keep your communication short and simple — the point is that it’s sincere and lets them know you care. You can also give the person a hug if it’s befitting of your particular relationship.

Sometimes, grieving people don’t want to talk much about their parent’s death. That’s OK — politely offer your sympathies and move on to another topic.

In other cases, the bereaved will want to talk. That’s when it’s your turn to listen. Often, a sympathetic ear can be the biggest help in the world to someone who has just lost their mother or father.

When to offer your condolences

It’s tricky to know when the “best time” is to offer your condolences to someone who has lost a parent. The truth is that there is no exact formula. It can depend on the particular situation, how close you were to the deceased or the bereaved, and whether or not you’ll be attending the funeral services.

Most of the time, offering your condolences during a viewing or just after the funeral is the way to go. If you won’t be attending these events, write your words of sympathy in a note or card to send to the bereaved. If you won’t see the bereaved until after all services have happened, sending a card is your best bet. You can reiterate your condolences in person once you do see them.

Avoid sending your condolences over social media or via text. A phone call may be appropriate depending on the situation. But most of the time, speaking in person or sending a sympathy card is the most appropriate course of action.

What to say to someone whose parent has died 

Let’s face it: It’s not easy knowing what to say to someone who lost a parent. Even the most well-meaning condolences can come across as platitudes or empty promises at times. So, what can you do to make sure your sympathies are expressed in a heartfelt and comforting way?

When you keep it simple, time it as best as you can, and make sure to acknowledge the bereaved person’s emotions, your words will convey what you truly want to say. It’s also a good idea to remind the person that you’re there for them if they need to talk or vent. Also, sharing a favorite memory of the deceased is almost always helpful.

Have you recently suffered the loss of a parent, or know someone who has? We would love to hear from you about your experience and what you found most helpful during those difficult times.

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  • Robert
    Thu Jun 18 2020, 08:49
    Just reading the advice that you shared with me helped a lot .You had some great suggestions.
  • Aafreen
    Wed Sep 02 2020, 19:03
    Hi, my boyfriend lost his father very recently. It was a sudden demise. I wasnt aware. I got to know after three days through a common friend of mine. So we had decided to go meet him. We showed up but he didnt feel like meeting us. We let him have his personal space. At the same time, me being a girlfriend, stuck by him on text messages. I always showed up, texted that I care and also that I am here if he needs anything. Once I had initiated a casual conversation to get him out of sad mood if, where I asked what he was doing and I asked him about his work and whether he started working or no. But it was just 5days to his dad's demise. I am curious to know whether work related question was appropriate to ask at that point of time?That same conversation had a part wherein he asked me that If I came in his apartment and also asked if I met his friends who had came to visit him. He already knew that these things had happened. Just after this I explained him the whole scenario of how I and his friends somehow had clashed into each other. After this he only replied with "is it, ok". I texted him stating, "yes I had met your friends, we spoke to each other and all, thats it. So was the last line question that I send sounded kind of rude or very casual or very inappropriate for such situation ? Must he thought that "we spoke" was all abouy gossiping ? How did it sound. How mustve he taken it into.I dont make calls as I feel he needs some kind of space as of now. Not even initiating to arrange meet. Also I am very new to such situation. Am I tackling it appropriately. What changes need to be changed. I try to be there over text's. Also I feel I aint able to be best at it.Please Help.
    • JaneVock
      Tue Sep 29 2020, 14:56
      Hi Aafreen,It sounds to me like your intentions are quite good. When someone is grieving, the best you can do I think is let me know you are thinking of them, being there to listen if and when they want or need this. None of us are 'best at it'. Just know that the death of a parent is extremely significant, regardless of what the relationship was like.Take good care, Jane
  • Lisa bercer
    Thu Sep 03 2020, 22:44
    I miss my mom everyday but because she was an agoraphobe it's hard to find people who knew her recently. I miss her so much and just want to talk to people to who knew her too. But no one else seems to know her past one night. It's so lonely feeling like you're the only person who met someone.
    • JaneVock
      Tue Sep 29 2020, 12:00
      Oh my gosh Lisa. That is such a tough situation to be in. I really understand your desire to talk to people who knew your mom. Perhaps you can introduce your mom to others by writing about her? I know, that might sound or seem inadequate. Are there relatives or friends who can share with you about life before she became agoraphobic?Please take good care, Jane
  • Jil
    Tue Oct 27 2020, 00:24
    Not only did I lose my dad last May after a difficult time related to Parkinson’s & numerous falls, I also lost my husband 16 years ago when I was just 47. Most meaningful were cards with handwritten messages & stories i instigated on fun or crazy life lived, way before celebration of life term existed. I insisted on same format when my dad died, with siblings @ 1st Xmas after, with mom. Huge success! Made an awful holiday something we all had a laugh over. Even mom seemed pleased. Btw- my dad wanted cremation & no service, so this was his send off. He always gave me a hard time growing up- too much stubborn like him!
    • JaneVock
      Fri Nov 06 2020, 08:43
      Thanks so much Jil for sharing. I love how you were doing 'celebration of life' before it existed as a concept! I can feel the love you had and continue to have for your husband and dad.Take good care, Jane
  • Juleene
    Fri Oct 30 2020, 10:29
    I have never lost a parent, but when I grieve sometimes it's not until a year later. My friend just lost her dad and when she told me via text, she mentioned she wasn't interested in sympathy. So what do I say or do when someone doesn't want sympathy? It's always been difficult for me to say anything so I've always chose to not say anything for fear of making matters worse, but maybe that is not good either.
    • JaneVock
      Mon Jan 04 2021, 10:18
      https://twentyonetoys.com/blogs/teaching-empathy/brene-brown-empathy-vs-sympathyThe above provides the best description I have seen to explain empathy, and how it is different from sympathy! Hope it helps.Jane
  • Ann
    Sat Oct 31 2020, 17:29
    I lost my 96 year old mom 8 weeks ago after a very brief illness. I was her and my 98 year old dad’s caregiver. I was very lucky to have my folks for so very long. Longer than anyone I know. I received the usual condolences after mom’s death. No funeral, no burial. What disappoints me is not being asked how I’m doing now. I’m asked how my dad is doing, which I’m grateful for, but what about me? I’m still hurting. Mom was my first significant loss, other than grandparents who lived long lives.
    • JaneVock
      Fri Nov 06 2020, 08:11
      Hi Ann,Yes, it is so often the case. When you are a caregiver, as you still are for your dad, people tend to ask how they are, and not the caregiver. And that obviously extends to losses and grieving. My mom died about a year ago, and I could never have imagined just how difficult and significant this loss is. The fact that your mom was 96 doesn't diminish the loss or attendant grief. Take good care!Jane
  • Ambani
    Thu Nov 19 2020, 02:59
    Thanks so much for sharing this. Someone I really care about just lost hid nephew and somehow .....i feel his grief. Thanks for letting me know the best way to make him feel better.
    • JaneVock
      Mon Nov 23 2020, 16:24
      Thanks for sharing Ambani. I can tell you are a very caring person!Take good care, Jane
    • JaneVock
      Tue Dec 01 2020, 08:26
      Thanks for your response Ambani--glad to hear it was helpful.Take good care, Jane
  • Ron Plakus
    Sun Nov 29 2020, 17:37
    I have a young friend in her early twenties that just lost her mother to complications from medical problems. I am about her mother's age. She lives in England and I live in Alaska and would like to say comforting things to her. She is only in contact with me through instant messaging and I just heard about the death today. I don't have her phone number to give her a phone call and listen to her in person. I sent her messages expressing how sorry I am for her loss, and I told her that I am here for her to listen to her thoughts and feelings and that she is not alone. She has expressed that she doesn't know what to do , and that her mother was her everything. From what I know of the girl, she lived alone with her mother, and her mother was her everything. I would greatly appreciate any additional counseling in what to say to her that can help her live through this terrible loss. And come out with out feeling as though she has lost everything worth living for.
    • JaneVock
      Mon Nov 30 2020, 09:35
      Hi Ron,It sounds like you are already doing what you can...can just being there to listen to her thoughts and feelings. If you are worried about her, you may want to suggest she reach out to her doctor. Really, the main thing is to just be there to listen, with empathy, and no judgement, which you are already doing!Take good care, Jane
  • Nkosinathi
    Thu Dec 03 2020, 13:26
    Wonderful.
  • Smith
    Thu Dec 31 2020, 01:59
    My girlfriend just lost her mum, it's very hard for her considering the close relationship she had with her and me as her boyfriend I'm stuck between the pain I know she's going through right and and also don't know how to approach the situation Her phone has been off since last night, but what's budging me right now is, when she finally switch on her phone I don't know what to say to sooth her pain than "I'm sorry for your loss" And I really wish to say something more that that to her, be her confidant and all.... Please I need help on how to go about this
    • JaneVock
      Mon Jan 04 2021, 10:10
      It is less about saying the right thing and more about just communicating that you are there for her, to listen, to be with her through her grief. Best thing is not to avoid it -bring it up and a good start is your '"I am sorry for your loss".Take good care, Jane
  • Leah Taylor
    Fri Jan 15 2021, 18:01
    I know someone who has lost their father. My message is it is okay to lean on your friends and family then can get you through this. If you know someone who has lost someone at a different time make sure they know they can lean on you. Celebrate the deceased life they are at peace