What to Say When Someone Dies Unexpectedly

I just learned that my neighbor’s brother accidentally died at a construction site. We haven’t met yet but I am at a loss of words to tell her. First, I’m a very emotional person and I might just cry while at it. I just what to tell someone who is still in disbelief?

I am researching on what to say when someone dies unexpectedly and I will share with you a few lessons as we go along. It is interesting that there is almost double the amount of information on ‘what not to say’ than ‘what to say’. Could it be that we are always saying the wrong things? Let’s find out what we shouldn’t say and why.

When someone dies unexpectedly, the initial reaction is shock and disbelief. Focus the message you send away from yourself, acknowledge the impact and address the grieving person sympathetically. Say I’m sorry; it must be difficult for you. Ask how they are coping and how you can help. Show support by being available to listen if they want to talk about it.

What NOT to say when someone dies unexpectedly

1.     I know what you are going through

The truth is you don’t. It doesn’t matter what your past experience is like. You might have gone through a similar scenario but the pain is relative.

You can’t measure or compare the level of pain in people. That’s why when you tell a grieving person you know what they are going through, it comes out as a rude assumption.

2.     Try not to think about it

How? All a grieving person does is think about the deceased person, the things they did together, and their last moments, what they would do if they were still around and so on.

If you are trying to derail their thoughts to ease their pain, ask if they want to do an activity with you. You can take a nature walk or drive, watch a movie, or play a game. Don’t put it out directly that you are trying to stop them from paying attention to what is happening. It will sound insensitive and uncaring.

3.     It’s better that way

This is a common statement especially if the deceased had a cruel accident, people justify it by imagining what would happen if they lived but were handicapped their whole life. Or they lived in pain throughout.

This could be a possibility but it is not only rude and untimely to bring it up at a time of sudden demise, but it’s insulting.

4.     Be strong

It sounds fitting, right? I did a mini-research with the people around me on what they felt when they were told to be strong.

Some felt judged, what message are you sending? Are you telling me I’m weak because I’m mourning? Some felt opposed to that message, you just lost someone and you feel shattered, by telling me to be strong, and they feel like you asking for too much.

They do not want to be strong; they can’t be, they want to mourn, and cry, and yield to the pain.

What to tell someone when a loved one dies unexpectedly

The words you use need to acknowledge the impact, the suddenness, the pain, the emptiness, and the despair death brings. They need to be empathetic.

1.     This is all so sudden, it’s hard to imagine

You are acknowledging the shock, don’t overdo it though, be precise. Don’t also leave the statement hanging, add words such as I’m so sorry or I can’t begin to imagine what you are going through.

Another way of putting it across is ‘I’m yet to come to terms with the news; I can only wish you strength’.

2.     This must be difficult for you

Such a statement communicates understanding, it’s simple yet profound. Follow it with supportive statements such as I’ll be coming over to keep you company or I will bring dinner. End the message with I’m sorry or I’m only a call away if you need anything.

3.     I am deeply sorry for your loss

Keep it simple and precise. You can send it as a text, an email, or a postcard. These are also perfect words to send a delivery with. The delivery could be flowers, a meal, groceries, or any other necessities.

4.     How can I help?

Although most people will be reluctant to tell you what they need, this question expresses concern and eagerness to ease the situation.

Usually, your question will be dismissed with ‘nothing’ or ‘I’m okay’. Don’t let the conversation end there. Carry on the conversation from a different angle and pay attention to the challenges they bring up.

Most people will not tell you they need finances especially, but the truth is, a sudden death most probably found them financially unprepared.

5.     Do you want to talk about it?

Sometimes a mourning person finds it hard to open up but you can help them start on their healing journey. What they mean when they say ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ is it’s too painful to talk about.

If they agree to open up, offer a listening ear and let them reminisce about the deceased, their connection, and what they did or planned to do together.

6.     Ask about the usual

Most people don’t know how overwhelming it can be just planning for a burial, holding meetings, organizing for a memorial service, communicating with relatives, service providers, and all involved.

It’s in order to ask about the progress of activities, what is happening at the moment, or what is pending.

Just like in normal circumstances, people want to know you care and you understand it takes effort to do it all. You can then offer supportive words such as I will be checking with you later or I can help with follow-ups if you need me to.

In conclusion

It is perfectly normal to feel blank and afraid of talking to someone who has been bereaved.  Are you wondering if you might offend them by what you say? I have news for you; silence will be more hurtful than saying the wrong thing. I’m going to my neighbor’s this evening; I think there is no perfect way of talking to her, not even after this post. I’m still nervous but I only need to get a way to express empathy in a sensitive manner.

Have more Questions? Check out What to Say When You Can’t Attend a Funeral

Also Find out more on How to Comfort Someone For Their Loss


Am a graduate sociologist and a regular contributor to national publications such as the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, Journal of Applied Social Science and the Annual Review of Sociology.

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