Offering Condolences After A Cancer Death: What to Say and Not to Say

Community // September 10, 2020
What to say when someone dies of cancer

It is often difficult to find the right words to say when someone passes away due to cancer. There is nothing to say that can take away the pain of the loss. However, certain phrases are better to avoid when you offer condolences.

We put together a guide of suggestions on what to say and avoid saying to someone who lost a loved one due to cancer. It’s important to remember these are suggestions. Be mindful of the deceased and their family, and apply your knowledge of the situation and other personal cues to guide the conversation.

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What to Say When Someone Dies of Cancer

There’s no one way to express empathy and compassion for someone dealing with a loss due to cancer. As you consider how to show your support, just be sure to pay attention to the individual’s situation and needs.

For instance, if you are a close friend to the grieving person, hugging them or holding their hand may go farther than words. If you’re not as close to them, offering concise, genuine condolences can be enough.

Tips on What to Say to Someone After a Loss Due to Cancer

  • Let them know you’re thinking of them. This can be as simple as saying or writing “You’re in my thoughts/prayers.” Even if you don’t know how to express your support, saying something like “I’m not sure exactly what to say, but I want you to know I care” can go a long way.
  • Make yourself available to them. Consider reaching out with statements such as “If you want to talk about him/her, please feel free to call (or text) anytime” or “If you need me, I’m here. But if you need space, just let me know.” These regards provide support without being overbearing.
  • Offer a specific way of helping. Reach out with direct messages of how you may help, such as “Can I watch the kids?” or “Can I bring you dinner this week?” It’s likely many people have offered vague, empty sentiments such as “let me know if there’s anything I can do to help.” By offering concrete tasks instead, it shows you intend to help the grieving person however you can.

What Not to Say When Someone Dies of Cancer

There are many overused phrases and expressions people say when offering condolences. Though these expressions are often well-intentioned, they may not provide the intended comfort. When someone has died, you don’t want to inadvertently add to the pain of that loss by saying the wrong thing.

When you consider how to express your condolences, remember the goal is to minimize the pain. You do not need to try to cheer them up as they grieve or “fix” the situation. Your role is to provide support and let them know you’re here for them if they need it.

Tips on What Not to Say to Someone After a Loss Due to Cancer

  • Don’t compare their loss to yours or someone else’s. Sayings like “I know exactly how you feel” or “I know someone who went through a similar loss” may seem supportive. But it’s important to remember every loss is unique and everyone grieves differently. If you have been in a similar situation and think advice will help, then consider providing your insights instead of such phrases.
  • Don’t offer oversimplified advice, such as “Just remember the good times” or “Stay strong.” During the grieving process, people need time to process the sadness they feel and can’t always be strong. If you knew the deceased, share your positive memories of them instead.
  • Avoid cliché expressions. Sayings such as “He/she is in a better place,” “He/she lived a good life” and “At least he/she isn’t suffering anymore” may cause additional pain. “There’s a reason for everything” is another saying that often doesn’t provide much comfort. Most often, those grieving want nothing more than to have their lost loved one still by their side. Instead of cliches, try to offer straightforward, heartfelt sentiments.

Show Your Support By Being There

Showing your support isn’t always about what you say but about what you do. One of the most important things you can do for someone dealing with a loss is to just be there for them. Let the person grieving know you’re there to listen and offer emotional support.

Be mindful of when someone may want to talk or merely sit with you. If a person seems withdrawn and quiet, don’t force them into a conversation. Even if it feels like an awkward silence, they may prefer your presence to talking about their feelings. Others may prefer to take their mind off of the loss. Sometimes talking about work or something they watched recently can provide a needed sense of normalcy.

It’s not about having the perfect thing to say to someone who’s grieving. Everyone seeks comfort and support in different ways. Ultimately, the best thing you can do is pay attention to the individual’s needs to determine how you can support them.