Expressing Sympathy for the Death of a Spouse

Sometimes after the death of a spouse, the bereaved spouse suffers additional grief from friends, family and acquaintances. Many people do not how to express sympathy for this profound loss. They may not know what to say or maybe they are afraid they will not be able to express their feelings appropriately.

Bereaved individuals, especially widowers, may maintain a strong front. They will not cry in public or in front of family members. They may feel that they are helping their children by not being too sad. Widows and widowers say that a few of the things that are the most difficult for them are:

  • Having to ask for help
  • Loss of identity, trouble defining self and making decisions
  • Being lonely

Words of Sympathy for Loss of Spouse

Most people who encounter grieving individuals ask how they are doing just to be polite or because they don’t know what else to say. Let bereaved individuals know that you care and you want to know how they are really doing.
Do say:

  • “I wish there was something I could say to ease your pain.”
  • “It’s okay to cry, be sad or angry around me.”
  •  “What kind of a day are you having?”

Don’t say:

  • “You poor thing.”
  • “At least he/she is not suffering anymore.”
  • “I know how you feel.”
  • “You’ll find someone new.”

Keep in mind how important your body language is. Ninety percent of communication is nonverbal. If you say, “How are you doing today?” while looking them in the eyes, you are more likely to receive an honest response.

How to Help the Bereaved After the Death of a Spouse

After the death of a spouse stay in touch with widows and widowers to provide support and friendship. A phone call can give them a chance to chat about daily events; it’s a simple thing that many people take for granted.
Find ways to stay connected whether it is something as easy as sending an “I’m thinking of you” e-card or spending the day together. It can be lonely to not have anyone to chat with about daily life. They may be hesitant to participate in social gatherings, but it is still nice to invite them.

If You Want to Help, Don’t Be Vague

Offer specific help, instead of saying, “If there is anything you need, just let me know.” It is better to think of something you can do to help and then offer.
Bereaved individuals often do want and need help. They may have a difficult time asking for it.
They may also be dealing with family members who are too “helpful.” They still want to make their own decisions. After the death of a spouse their are many difficult decisions to make; whether or not they still want to wear their wedding ring or if they should keep their spouse’s belongings in the house. These decisions take time and understanding. They want simple help, not somebody to take over.
Suggest an activity that you could do together. If you make a vague statement like, “you should join us for dinner sometime” it isn’t really helpful.
It’s better to think of an activity or event in the near future and invite them in such a way that they know what to expect, for example “Do you want to go for a walk in the park with me on Saturday?” Like wise, if you say, “How are you?” you’ll probably receive a polite, “I’m fine.” It is better to be specific, “how are you coping today?”

  • Activities to do together
  • Enjoying nature
  • Helping others by volunteering at a soup kitchen or charity
  • Hobbies
  • Art and craft projects
  • Church events (many churches have groups for widows and widowers)

Resources You May Want to Suggest

Gifts and Thoughtful Gestures

Buy a CD of soothing music. Music has been shown to bring comfort and release during the grieving process. For widows and widowers who have an empty house to themselves, it can be refreshing to have beautiful music to listen to.
Give a journal or diary. Writing is a healthy way to express grief. A particularly special journal may inspire them to write.
Give a book of poetry or print off poems from this website. Poetry can be wonderfully expressive, even if you don’t write it. Just reading a heartfelt poem that so eloquently expresses how you feel can help. For poems dealing specifically with the death of a spouse go to:
Poems for Widows
Poems for Widowers
Give items that can be taken to visit the grave site. If they frequently go the visit the cemetery they may appreciate a flower, plant or mourning stones to leave at the grave site.