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What to Say When Someone Dies

If you really want to learn what to say, spend some time reading What To Say When Someone Dies, a magnificent blog by writer and editor Teresa Bruce. Ms. Bruce is a widow, so she speaks from experience.

I know of few better resources anywhere for comforting the mourner. a mitzvah which we call in Hebrew Nichum Avelim (nee-CHUM ah-veh-LEEM.)

Jewish tradition reminds us that our presence is the main thing we have to offer. There is a human impulse to run away, to avoid, and we must fight that impulse with all our might, because there are few things more cruel than to abandon a mourner. Mourners bear the weight of loss, and they deserve our support. We can express that support by showing up, by reaching out, and sometimes simply by being there in silence. But sometimes we need to know what to say, or how to say it: that’s where Ms. Bruce’s blog is such a gift.

There are a lot of entries. Use the tools on the side: search box, categories. Find the things that will help you in your current situation. She covers many situations, and you can leave her a question in comments  if you can’t find the help you need.

So go, read, learn how to be there for the mourners in your community! If you don’t know any now, the day will come and you don’t want to be caught flat-footed! This is a mitzvah we can all do, and with such gentle instruction, we can do it well.

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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

17 thoughts on “What to Say When Someone Dies”

  1. Thank you. What a great blog. I especially appreciated the tips on what not to do or say in the face of grief.

    For example, I hadn’t realized that people hound the grieving about how long it’ll be until they’re ‘better’. How awful, and how unintentionally thwarting of the growth one has to do to survive grief.

    This was really helpful, thanks for the link.

    1. One thing I do is put a yearly reminder on my calendar, when a friend’s loved one passes. I send them a quick note – thinking of you, and how important X was to you – and maybe a memory if I knew them well. I have been told that the feeling that the world has forgotten someone who left a howling absence in one’s own heart is one of the worst losses.

  2. A subject dear to my heart, being widowed just over a year ago. My own(personal) feelings about what *not* to say – which in my view and experience is every bit as important, if not more so, that what to say:
    1. “You’ll have your freedom now” (I had been his carer for years)
    2. “It’s the circle of life” ( he was 81. I am 60. We were married 35 years and were soulmates……his age does not make it any less painful, or easier)
    3. “Well, you would have expected that, wouldn’t you?” (said also about his going into the nursing home. I have never thought that way. No, I didn’t expect it. Yes, I knew we had an age gap. That was never an issue – we loved each other)
    4. “He wouldn’t want you to be upset” (I know. I was/am. Please don’t – albeit unwittingly, and well intentioned – add guilt to the mix)
    5. “It’s a blessing”(though I’d qualify that with a kind of agreement, as my husband had his last big stroke – I had been his carer through a series of strokes, before he went into a nursing home for his last two years, the last massive stroke happening on my birthday last year: and he was gathered in two days later. The idea of him ‘living’on, like that…..was and is too dreadful to contemplate, so, in that sense, a blessing…..but nevertheless, it didn’t help to hear others tell me that. It was one of those private, inner thought
    things for me, not something that should be said to me)

    And the biggest doozy of all….in a group where I have been a member for a long time – seven years or so: an email, discussion, all female, mostly around my age, sharing the same and similar health problems…..when I wrote about how I felt(losing my husband, still trying to come to terms with the death of my mother in a fire)I was basically told that I should not feel that way, think that way; and when I asked for my thread to be ignored, she persisted in “being helpful”.

    Telling someone not to feel as they are feeling is – again, in my view – deeply damaging, and disrespectful. Persisting when asked to stop, (still in the guise if concern for me, which I am sure there was….she was genuinely concerned, but not stopping when asked, politely, overstepped boundaries galore.

    And to then be called rude ( which I was not, and never am, online: blunt, to the point, where necessary, but rude, no) after this….only added insult to injury.

    It’s the fourth yahrzeit for my mother soon….the 19th. This upsets and troubles me, and each year feels worse than the one before. We were estranged. My choice. Necessity.

    For anyone who had not experienced that – and I hope none ever do – it is nearly impossible to communicate ones feelings; I had tried to do that, in a place where I felt safe, and trusted, for a long time.

    So, that, add the loss of my soulmate….nah. No one gets to tell me I shouldn’t feel as I did, and do. No one.

    Rabbi Ruth, I hope I was not inappropriate writing this….though it helped me.


    Rabbi Ruth, forgive me for this “all about me” post.

    1. Shabbat shalom, Alex. You wrote very eloquently of things which many people will be grateful that you shared. I lost my own mom 6 months ago, so I’m on a path near yours and I know how hard it’s been for me. I’m so sorry for all the losses in your life.

      As much as there are good reasons for not hewing to hidebound traditions of mourning etiquette, I think we may have thrown the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, to the point where society now feels comfortable assaulting mourners with helpful tips about how to be more chipper and get on with their lives on schedules that they view as more reasonable than ours. I don’t really want to wear black all the time, for example, partly because as a musician it’s my work wardrobe anyway and colleagues would just assume that I was on my way to or from a gig, while most other people would assume that I was going Goth rather than recognizing the actual symbolism, but the old ways of wearing only black and then graduating to grey and to lavender on a strict timetable at least served as a figurative signal for an observer to “handle with care,” and we don’t have that any longer.

      All the best to you.

    2. Alex, this is a perfectly fine place to say these things. Someone may learn from reading it, but I am glad to know that you feel you are among friends. May you be comforted among the mourners of our people.

      1. Rabbi Ruth,
        Thank you, so much. All the more so, as a friend said yesterday(regarding the approaching yahrzeit for my mother, “It’s just another date on the calendar” ….again, not intended to hurt, but incredibly wrong: and I find that as I get older – Im now 60 – and my own health is quite fragile, I have less and less tolerance for things such as this. I don’t have the energy to force myself to be nice, to tell myself that they mean well….Im not given to rudeness, online (or anywhere else) …..and I bend over backwards, making allowances…..but it’s just too difficult these days. And I’ve never been good at standing up for myself; any suggestions as to what I might say in polite but nevertheless making clear how I feel are very welcome….
        Thanks Again

        1. One of the things I’ve learned as I’ve aged, Alex, is that when someone says something hurtful to me, it’s perfectly fine for me to say so. I don’t argue, I don’t give them reasons, I just say, “OUCH” or “That was hurtful.” I don’t give a speech, I just say one of those things. Then at least I have give n them the opportunity to make teshuvah, just as I would if they stepped on my foot. I find that it takes much less out of me to be honest about those hurts. And for the people who take some sort of weird pleasure in bossing others, it takes all the fun out of it. 😉

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