Communication And Death: What To Say, What Not To Say And How To Say It

Death. Such an uncomfortable subject. I have previously made the observation that if the issue of pornography is the leader in the, “There is nothing else we engage in more that we talk about less,” category; in that same vein I would observe that the issue of death is the absolute leader in the, “There is nothing else that every single one of us without exception is  going to do that we prefer to deny and not talk about,” category.

Most of my life I have been most definitely part of this denial crowd.

I have always had a very remote relationship with death as I’ve never lost anyone terribly close to me. When my mother passed away last October, I experienced first-hand just how deeply uncomfortable and awkward most people are with the subject. When friends, colleagues and acquaintances would come in contact with me -or deliberately not come in contact with me- after her passing, I noticed an array of reactions in how to approach this morbid subject.

As a speech geek in both life and death, it was interesting to examine words and communication patterns in the context of bereavement. And less you think my observations are the invent of some rogue Comms guy and his personal opinions, not really. There is a lot of existing literature on the subject.

I noticed the reactions basically fit into three categories.

  1. The “Just Say Nothing About It Ever” group.
  2. The “Say Way Too Much” group.
  3. The appropriate, “Just Say Enough” group.

I realize everyone is different and there is no one-size-fits-all approach to communicating condolences to a grieving person.  That said, I do believe in some overarching principles that will certainly assist me in dealing with the subject for the grieving others who cross my path in the future. I thank you for allowing me to share these with you as I hope you may find them useful at some point as well.

The first group is just weird, but I totally get it. When you know someone has lost a loved one and choose NEVER to broach the subject demonstrates deep communication incompetence. The several friends and colleagues I have who, to this day, have never uttered a word about it is, well, highly inappropriate…but, again, I get it. I believe it speaks far more about the person’s level of discomfort and awkwardness than it does any lack of sympathy, empathy or concern. Perhaps it is not surprising that all of these people, in my experience, were male. Yet let’s not bag on the men and champion the women just yet, as, in fact, women were almost exclusively at fault in the second category, the “Say Way Too Much” crowd.

This second group felt the need to go beyond the necessary, “Sorry for your loss,” and offer some form of philosophy, certainly with good and loving intentions, to counsel you as you grieve. Some of these philosophies included:

  • Everything happens for a reason.” I wrote an entire blog about this one!
  • She is in a better place.” Unless all parties share identical eschatological positions, like above, this can be highly offensive.
  • It is now time to really embrace life and love ones.” I could not have figured that one out on my own?
  • I know how you are feeling.” Such hubris. None of us can ever get inside someone’s else’s head to know feelings. Presumptuous.
  • At least the death was quick.” Let the bereaved person discover any potential silver-linings for them self.

The point? One’s grieving is not about you or your philosophies -keep those little gems to yourself. It is all about them…don’t let yourself get in the way of a good condolencing (my word….you’re welcome).

The final category of “Just Say Enough,” certainly constituted the great majority of people. The key: Nothing fancy, flowery or eloquent is necessary. Perhaps saying, “I am sorry for your loss,” is trite, it is trite for a reason. It works. If one were to follow up the sentence with anything else at all, it should focus solely on the other person, as in, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do.” If there is going to be an extended conversation it needs to be motivated and instigated by the grieving person, not you. Pending my relationship with the individual, the time, place and even, to a large degree, my mood, I may or may not have conversed further.

As I conclude this short blog concerning appropriate ways to converse with grieving persons, I am reminded about a conversation I had with one of our Crafton math professors, Sherri Wilson, shortly after my mom’s passing.

Sherri and I have shared the same office hallway for the better part of my 12 years at Crafton. We are cordial and friendly with each other though not at all close -I mean she does teach math after all, yeech. The first time Sherri saw me after my mother’s death she came, knocked on my door and, quite appropriately and confidently, shared her condolences. What struck me about the conversation with Sherri was two-fold: First her personal self-confidence and security to boldly share her condolences was, as I have come to find out, rare and unusual; and, second, the look of genuine concern in her eye. This look could not be fake or construed…it was the real deal.

Sherri did not say anything magical or fancy, just the basics. Yet after I had my very brief conversation with her, I felt a little better. Why? Another human being, whom I do not know all that well, cared. I expect my family and closed loved ones to care, yet to feel this loving kindness from one outside of my “tribe” was so encouraging.

Death is undoubtedly awkward. Yet since we live in a world in which EVERYONE dies, perhaps it is high time we learn how to become effectively conversant within this context.

Thanks Sherri.



  1. I learned a lot about perspective on life and death through the lectures given by Alan Watts many decades ago. They’re absolutely worth a listen.

    So many people are afraid they’re going to be locked up, alone, in a dark room for all eternity, or other such fates after they die. But really, imagine what it’s like to go to sleep and not wake up — it’s not so unpleasant. If there’s nothing to feel, there will definitely not be any loneliness or suffering.

    I often wonder why life interrupts the perpetual non-existence. What is it like to wake up having never been to sleep?

    • I looked up Alan Watts….what a diverse background he has, interesting. I find myself sharing many Buddhist philosophies, not because I learned them and decided to adopt them, rather I adopted certain worldviews and came to find out later that they were Buddhist in nature. I find the idea of perpetual non-existence very intriguing….I have never really thought of life that way. hmmmmmm. Thank you so much for the feeback Joe….BTW our next Days of Advocacy are March 6 and 8. Hope you can join us.

  2. Thank you Jimmy. I have only suffered the loss of one person extremely close other than my parents and those were not grief striking losses. They had both lived full and very long lives. Sad that I don’t get to call my mom every night and her say “Good evening Phoenix AZ” (that was on her caller id and she knew who it would be.) The one loss of great consequence was my wife Marilyn which you are already aware of from my memoir. That loss was so dramatic that I simply don’t remember any of the reactions you’ve mentioned here. I just remember flood after flood of tears alone in my bedroom every morning and every night for well over a year.

    • Thanks Georgia. I appreciate your words. My mom also lived a very long and full life. While her passing is painful, it is so much the natural order of things. Losing a partner or lover must be on a completely different level. I think that is why I am currently pouring myself into my dad’s life. He is so lonely right now and lays in bed all day swimming in memories. I cannot imagine HIS pain. I always appreciate your feedback Georgia 🙂

  3. I am sorry on your irreplaceable loss of mom . May she get rest in peace in hearafter. Ameen
    One thing I would like to say that I can feel your invisible pain on your mom physical death but do you know everyone of us are facing frequent invisible death because of this abundance use of technology ( cell phone). Even we are sitting among our family members but have no verbal interaction with each other, litterly asking by texting “mom I am hungry”. What kind of culture and system we are nourishing and nurturing?

    • Wow….you have taken technological dystopian-ism to a new level! I tend to not be so cynical regarding technology yet I believe to be wary and critical of something is nearly always a good idea. I saw a very interesting Reddit section that played off the Netflix series, “Black Mirror,” called “White MIrror” in which people told their stories of how technology has played an important and positive role in their lives…pretty interesting to look at both side of he technology equation. It is pretty interesting if you want to check it out:
      Thank you both for your feedback as well as your condolences. It is deeply appreciated.

  4. Moms are beyond special. Sorry your mom isn’t with you anymore. Your comments about your dad are so sad. Yet, that’s such a beautiful kind of love. Grief knows no depth or boundaries. I’m glad you’re there for him.
    Working in hospice has taught me it’s ok to say “words” like — dying, death. It’s honest. It also taught me not to fear death, it can be an amazingly intimate and beautiful experience.
    Society has come such a long way with dealing and talking about death in the last 100 years. One day we’ll all be in the appropriate group.

  5. I am so sorry for your lost. I have recently lost my grandpa due to a heart attack and it has been the most painful thing ever. Losing a loved one is very difficult. Everything does happen for a reason and all these people who died might be in a better place. The comments you gave about your dad are very touching and sad It is an amazing thing that you are there for your dad through everything.

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