What do you say when someone dies? (Philosophy)

What do you say when someone dies?

I spoke with an acquaintance whose relative passed away the other day. I gave my condolences, and he remarked at how meaningful what I said to him was and that no one ever approached death in that way.  He asked me “How do you know what to say?”

He’s not the first person to ask that. It’s a tough question. I really had to think about it for a while because I never really stopped to analyze it until now. I suppose it’s because I have certain rules in my head that I follow. Perhaps they can be useful to someone who has a hard time finding the right words in a tragic time.

My “rules” are as follows:

1: I don’t say “I’m sorry”

In American language “I’m Sorry” doesn’t mean what we think it means. In everyday language, when someone says “I’m sorry” to you, you’re supposed to say “It’s okay.” This is more of an insult than a condolence in the case of death. It shifts the focus of the tragedy to  you instead of the griever. I’m sure no one intends for it to be perceived this way, but in my opinion it’s a phrase that has all the wrong connotations.

Believe it or not, the main focus of what I say is simply “That sucks”. What comes before and after that statement varies depending on the person and how they respond to things. If someone might take offense, another rendition would be “That’s terrible” or “I wish that never happened.” Statements like these keep the focus on the griever, and allow you to share in their pain symbiotically (in a way that makes both parties better), where as the usual statements used in society are parasitic (in a way that makes the griever worse while making you better) in nature.

2: I don’t ask “Is there anything I can do?”:

This doesn’t put the focus on you the way that saying “I’m sorry” does, but it makes the griever focus on something other than grieving. It puts them on the spot and makes them feel pressured to know what they need when in all actually, they have no clue what they need most of the time.

Knowing what they need without needing to ask is the greatest form of comfort a person can offer. If that seems impossible, just realize that people don’t really differ from each other all that much. They-want what-you want; companionship, they want to feel special, and they want to feel purpose. Death reminds us that we’re next, it takes away something from our life that was important, and it takes away our ability to control a situation. Essentially, it strips us of our identity and our humanity. In a way, who we were dies with the person we lose, at least to some degree. The only way to survive is to take something of value from the experience and grow and adapt from it and become something new. Anything less leaves us incapable of moving on and we become dead-emotionally which is not something anyone would wish on their loved ones.

3: Just be there

I prefer to sit, or in some way spend time with the griever. I ask them how they feel about the situation, what the person was like, what the person meant to them. I put the focus on the griever instead of the deceased. No offense, but the deceased are just that; deceased. They’ve gotten everything the world can give. Those still in need are the living. Allowing the griever to talk about the one they lost is a way for them to work through their emotions, to let the bottled up feelings escape. Some people want to bottle everything up because they feel like if they let it all out they won’t have anything left. They punish themselves hoping they can hold on to the person’s memory in honor of them. This isn’t healthy. However, talking about it strengthens the memories of the departed because teaching is the best way that humans learn and storytelling has been humanities main source of education from the beginning and even into today. In this regard, you aid them in letting go, while helping them remember. You give them companionship by being there, you allow them to be the center of attention so they feel special, and by asking them questions about what the person did for them or how that person made them better, or even just made them feel, you allow them to gather a purpose from the person’s existence, which puts a value on their death.

At the end, THEN I’ll make a STATEMENT like “Anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask, I’m here.” I’ve never had someone take me up on the offer, but it relieves tension from the griever. When they feel all alone, they know that if things get too tough, they have someone to lean on. While it might be more of a gesture than anything, don’t say it thinking a person won’t ask for help, be ready to help, or don’t say this at all. It’ll hurt more if you don’t keep your promise, than to have never made the promise in the first place.

4: I don’t put words in their mouth:

If someone insists on being left alone, fine, but I don’t tell them “You probably want some time to be alone.” Chances are, if they haven’t asked for the alone time, it’s because they don’t want to be alone. If they’re not talking about it, it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t want to talk about it, they just don’t know where to start. If after asking them how they feel about the situation as mentioned earlier, they still aren’t opening up, I’ll talk about my own feelings of desperation, fear, insecurity, confusion, etc. where death is concerned. Even if I don’t know the deceased, I can talk about how I felt during a personal experience.

However, again, I always keep the focus on them. Instead of “When my friend died of cancer at such a young age, I didn’t know how to feel about it, believe me, I know what you’re going through.” I lean more towards “I can’t even imagine what you’re going through, I know when I lost my friend to cancer I was shocked, I didn’t even know how to feel about it, like…. What are you supposed to say? Ya know? How are you supposed to react? Everybody expected something from me, but I just didn’t know how to feel. What did you feel when it happened?”

The difference is it lets the person teach ME something about death, it lets them talk about themselves and share their journey instead of reassuring me, or reassuring themselves which is an action that is very short and impersonal, indicating a desire to break contact. I don’t know what they’re going through, but I have been through something similar, and we can talk to each other, hopefully without being misunderstood. That’s something a person can take a risk on exposing themselves to.

If you lose someone together, the best thing to do is to share it. “We lost them.” “What are we going to do?” “You remember when they…”   Then bounce back and forth with sharing more individualized experiences. Offer back and forth what you think should be taken from the event. The back and forth conversation will evolve the concept into something you both can agree on and move on together, strengthening your bond while remember the loved ones lost.

In the end, this acquaintance asked me to help him write his relative’s Eulogy. What I gave him was a few notes, ideas, a short paragraph and I told him to start with that and go from there. Later, he thanked me and said that everything I wrote went into the Eulogy after he added some personal stories, etc.

That’s basically it as far as what I do is concerned. I’m sure there’s more to what a person does in order to be there in the right way, but those general ideas seem the most important when it comes to consoling the grieving in a way that will benefit them.

Thanks for reading,



I post as often as I can, but due to a slight case of dyslexia sometimes it is difficult to post quickly. I have to rewrite my work many times for it to be clear and concise. Subscribe and you’ll always know when I have something new up. Thanks in advance.

copyright 2011 Kephra Rubin all rights reserved, request permission when referencing or reposting for requirements.


About Kephra Rubin

I am slightly dyslexic and have a difficulty with writing. It's because of this that I try to write as much as I can. Lately my writing has improved quite a bit and it's thanks to everyone who reads and posts on my blog. Sometimes it is difficult for me to post as regularly as others do since everything requires a lot of rewrites. Subscribe to my blog so you always know when I've got something new up. Thanks in advance.
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2 Responses to What do you say when someone dies? (Philosophy)

  1. SuzyQ says:

    Another thought provoking and helpful post. (I feel I should apologize for the apology I gave you last time.)

    Like most people (I suppose), saying “I’m sorry” after hearing news of death of a love one seems like an appropriate (or maybe, it’s a knee-jerk) response at the time. Do you find it odd that there never seem to be a time where we are taught of how to handle death? The mere word “death” or even, talk of death seems frightening to most people and enough, for some to think, you are suicidal. (I know, because I do talk about death…and definitely, not because I am suicidal). Yet, as we all know, death is a certainty.

    It is comforting to hear that one make the effort to remember the deceased as well as for the griever. Sharing (as you put it) I find is the best. Yet, the hardest to approach. Or should I say, how to approach it.

    Two deaths I have experienced in my lifetime so far. They meant alot to me, even if I had two different bonds. One distant and one close. I felt the same (ie. depth) feeling of grief and loss for both. Depending on whom I know presently, some would talk about them. But most would not. Fact remains, even if they don’t, I still do and want to. Maybe because however brief, they were here…however, insignificant a part they played, they had touched a part of me…my life journey. I firmly believe no one crosses your path is insignificant. They will always leave something behind…for you.

    I think the Irish had it right. We should all have a “wake”. Heck, at least it’s one loud way to show I existed…and I actually meant something (big or small) to someone.

    That’s my thoughts on this matter. Until next time…

    • Kephra Rubin says:

      Oh stop, lol, I know what you meant, and I’m thankful. Many people might have chosen to simply skip over that statement in their response to avoid an awkward moment, I kind of put myself out there and you didn’t leave me hanging, you go girl 😉 lol.

      You’d think I would have thought about that, but come to think of it, I really haven’t much. I mean, personally, yes, I’ve thought about death, but it is a very difficult subject to simply discuss with others which I wish it wasn’t. I have tried, but far less than other taboo subjects.

      And death really bugs the hell out of me to be honest. But, you really can’t talk to people about it. Like death is a disease you catch by talking about it. Like death is a person you never want to notice you and so you avoid talking about them. It’s kind of like sex when you think about it. The two seem kind of linked in a lot of ways. Most, not all, but most people don’t really ask for advice when it comes to sex, they don’t talk about how they felt during this moment, or what they would have rather had in that moment. They just do it, not to experience, just to get it over with so they can say they did it. Perhaps in some cases, we live life the same way, never stopping to ask ourselves what we think of it, and what we would rather experience (which oddly ties in with our talk about my “Why is your boss always dumber than you?” concept, perhaps everything is alike, hmmmm…) and how we feel because of it.

      Perhaps how we cope with death really affects how we deal with life.

      Death makes me angry, lol. I’m sayin’ suppose there really was a big ball of everything, so dense even time couldn’t occur and it exploded, and as it expanded out into the vacuum out there fire and dirt and ice and all this other inanimate stuff came about. These loose particles came together, and against all forces of thrust and fury, managed to form planets. Our planet was one of only a handful compared to the billions of dirt balls out there able to find that “sweet spot” not too far and not too close to the giant virtually perpetual explosions of a star. Being beaten down by UV rays and a mess of other crap, things smashed together violently and formed chains of molecules of different things, and among more violence and seemingly endless nothingness, life formed, and as if that wasn’t hard enough, disease, natural disasters, every force in the universe is trying to kill us, and we’re trying to kill each other, and yet still we’re here. Sentient beings seriously have to be the most badass thing anywhere in existence, because we’re STILL here. And our entire existence doesn’t even amount to the blink of an eye in the scale of the universe. Our lives aren’t even a single breath. Something so amazing, so irrefutably durable, unbeatable, is at the same time so fragile that it’s gone before you even noticed it was there.

      Maybe it’s arrogance, maybe it’s fear, more than likely it’s simply a lack of understanding on my part… regardless… what the hell man?

      You’re possibly the only person I’ve really had that in depth of a discussion on the subject which only supports your concept that people just don’t talk about this enough.

      OH my god, you’re totally wearing black lip stick and nail polish right now aren’t you? kidding, “goth”, lol… hot.

      I appreciate you sharing. Especially about how some of the people you know choose not to talk about it, while you would rather discuss it more. I know when my mother died I didn’t really have much to say about it unfortunately due to the circumstances, but when a bunch of my friends died I was devastated. Some even died of cancer, a year or two younger than me and they’re gone. Another friend has a bit of a scare going on right now and it’s difficult to cope. I’m weird because i bottle things up, ya know? But then I make a conscious effort to try and let them out. So by nature i’m not a talker, but ironically I end up talking A LOT as you’ve already experienced, lol.

      Although I don’t just talk to anybody about this stuff, there has to be some kind of a vibe going where I know it’s not falling on deaf ears. Sometimes I think all the comments on my site are more interesting than my posts, lol.

      Welp, I’m at home with a broken foot, and just recently cut my hand and had to get stitches so… yay… cabin fever, lol. Although I hung out with a friend yesterday… still, going out of my mind. Thanks for the stimulating conversation. lol.

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