How to respond to a friend when their loved one has passed

Lydia Ramsey International business etiquette expert, professional speaker and author Manners That Sell

Do you struggle with what to do when a friend loses a loved one? If you do, you are not alone. Most people have no idea what to do or say. They search to find answers and when they can’t find them, they simply do nothing. While death can be an extremely uncomfortable topic, the worst thing you can do is to ignore it or pretend it didn’t happen. Here are some ideas for what to do or say, as well as what not to do or say, to be supportive and caring.


Do acknowledge the death

There are any number of ways to show your support depending upon your relationship with your friend who has suffered a loss. If you have a close relationship, visit your friend personally. However, call before you go to be sure that your friend is home and able to receive visitors. If your relationship is more distant, you might decide to send a card, note, make a donation to a charity, or send flowers.

Do refer to the deceased by name

Some people feel uncomfortable using the name of the deceased as if it brings up more pain. In fact, it does just to opposite. Using the name is a way of showing respect and honoring the person and the life that is gone.

Do send a handwritten sympathy note

Personal notes offer immediate and lasting consolation. They ease the grief of the moment and can be kept for years as reminders that people cared. Add warmth to your note by once again using the name of the deceased. Recall a memory or add a short anecdote. Your note will be most effective when it is written immediately.

Do take items to the house

No one is ever prepared for death and has stocked the pantry. Since friends and family will be coming by or even staying at the house, items of food are always appreciated. Most people think of meat, bread and desserts, but few remember fruits and vegetables. Casseroles that contain a protein, a vegetable and a starch are always a good choice. In addition to food, other household items such as paper products can come in handy and save unnecessary trips to the store.

Do be specific when you offer help

In times of loss, friends want to help. So what do most do? They say, “If there is anything you need, let me know.” That may sound like a good offer if you have never been on the receiving end. Nine times out of ten, your friend has no idea what to ask you to do. Would you be willing to go to the grocery store? Could you pick up a relative at the airport? Would you walk the dog? Unless you are specific, people don’t have a clue what you have in mind. Suggest several tasks that you are willing and able to perform.


Do not ignore the family’s wishes regarding donations or memorials

Read the obituary for information about how the family wishes to have the deceased recognized. If it says, “No flowers,” don’t send any flowers. Enough floral arrangements will appear. The last thing that the family needs to do is worry about what to do with a room full of flowers and plants, especially when they didn’t want them in the first place.

Do not decide to send a donation to your favorite charity instead of one requested by the family

It is disrespectful and thoughtless to ignore the wishes of the family or the deceased. Occasionally an obituary will suggest charities to which donations may be sent, but also include the phrase “or a charity of your choice.” Honor the request.

Do not give unsolicited advice

You may have some ideas about next steps that your friend and the family might consider, such as disposing of the deceased’s belongings. That would not be your decision. Allow those who are grieving to handle the loss and next steps in their own time and their own way.

Do not send your condolences by email or worse yet, by text

In this world dominated by technology, email and texting rule. However, they are entirely too impersonal and informal for expressions of sympathy. Put some time and effort in writing to your friend, going by to visit, or taking food to the family. The only thing worse than using email or text to express your sympathy is to do nothing at all.

Do not engage in cliches

Acknowledge the death in a thoughtful considerate way. It is totally inappropriate to suggest that somehow the death was for the best. How often have you heard people say, “He is in a better place now?” While your friend may find some peace now that their loved one is not suffering, it is not your place to say so. In the case of an open casket at a funeral, no one ever looked better dead than alive, so keep that thought to yourself.

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While you may feel awkward in knowing how to respond when a friend loses a loved one, this is a time when you can show your support and true friendship. Ignoring the death is the wrong reaction. Keep these tips in mind so that the next time you find yourself in this difficult situation, you can feel confident about how to reach out to those who need your support. The simplest gestures count.

More expert advice about Coping with Death and Grief

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Lydia RamseyInternational business etiquette expert, professional speaker and author

I founded Manners That Sell 15 years ago after working in the healthcare industry, the non-profit community, the retail sector and hospitality world. In all of those arenas as well as in daily life, I recognized the need for people to hone their...

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