I was so sorry to hear your news: Expressing sympathy

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by Liz Walter

It can often be difficult to know what to say to someone we know who has experienced loss, illness or another painful event, and even harder if we have to do it in another language. Today’s post looks at phrases we use to express sympathy in a sincere and empathetic way.

Choosing appropriate words will of course depend on how well we know the person concerned, and also the type of event and how upset we think that person is likely to be.

Let’s start with death. The following are common phrases, but are very formal, so may be more suitable for someone who is not a close friend:

I am writing to express my sincere condolences on the death of your (wife/son/grandmother, etc.).

Please accept our deepest sympathies.

People often try to avoid the words ‘death’ or ‘die’, and a very common way of doing that is to speak about someone’s loss or sad news:

I was so sorry to hear about your loss/the sad news about your sister.

When someone has died, it is usual to say something nice about the person if you knew them. We often talk about our memories of them:

Your dad/brother was such a lovely person/was always kind to me, etc.

I have so many wonderful memories of your dad.

If you didn’t know the person who has died, you might say something about the feelings of the person you are writing to:

I know how much Peter meant to you.

It’s never easy to lose a parent.

I can’t imagine how you must feel.

We might also talk about things that may comfort them:

I hope you can find solace in the fact that(formal)

I’m sure you will take comfort from

A more general way to express sympathy, for example if someone tells you they are ill or that they’ve lost their job, is simply:

I’m really sorry to hear that.

If you know the person very well, you might say something much more informal, such as:

That really sucks.

For less serious events, you might say something such as:

That’s a shame.

That’s awful/terrible.

What a pity!

Poor you!

Better luck next time.

And finally, when we write to someone or speak to them to offer sympathy, we often offer support of some kind:

I want you to know that we’re here to support you.

We are thinking of you at this difficult time.

I’m here for you if you need anything. (rather informal)

Do let me know if there’s anything I can do to help. (rather informal)

47 thoughts on “I was so sorry to hear your news: Expressing sympathy

  1. Ary Pelegrino

    I’d like to compliment you once more by the posts you’ve been done recently. Expressing sympathy especially during bad moments isn’t easy at all. We need to find the right thing to say or the best words to express our feelings according to the circumstances. Condolences, sympathies, memories are among the best ones. Thus, I’d say how much you mean to us and I hope you can stay with us for many years to come. Congratulations! Thanks.

  2. Angela

    Well I’ve just lost my husband to cancer I don’t get on with my family but I have got support of my probation officer and support worker from St Michaels hospice

    1. Elżbieta Szpilkowska

      Thank you ,I am grateful.This was a very educational and comprehensive explanation.

  3. Patricia

    Really useful. Thank you

    However, I´d like to enlarge this blog, by adding those words or phrases that help us expressing sympathy during good moments,
    i personally use in formal contexts: what a great news!, nice to hear that!, or glad to hear that! and in more informal ones : awsome, fantastic, great!, but that’s it.
    it would be nice if you could enlighten us.
    I appreciate it.

    1. Elizabeth Walter

      Ah, Patricia, I think you’ve misunderstood the word ‘sympathy’ – it’s a false friend in some languages, e.g. Italian. In English, sympathy is only for bad things.

  4. Alison F. OatisII

    Always lost for words because I don’t like to use the word “lost’ . It 2 am be personal. I don’t feel the soul is lost, but ever present in the loved ones life.

    1. Johnson eniefiok aaron

      Am very sorry what happened pls have mecry with u,I promise it will not happen
      again thank

  5. anna

    Thank you Liz – i think it’s important to teach language according to its functions and this is of great help. Hope to see more of your posts

    1. When tears fall into an ocean made them ,they believe their the only ones that have ever been shed & always will,even as the other eye in sympathy wells.Time itself gets lost in sorrow & hopelessness stands still & idle.Only when we can remember that their is also tears of joy .Can we then stand up to such Gravity & change the Tide.

  6. Marshal K-Craig.

    Thank you.

    I wish I’d seen this last year when my dear Maggz passed.
    I was stuck for the right words to say.

    Marshal in sunny Port Glasgow.

  7. Mahamadou Sillah

    I’m so proud of you
    Because I have seen some interesting words in this advertisement
    So I’m so interested
    And I need to join with you of learning English

  8. Leesa Moran

    I’m coming in late on this subject but I’ve just got to comment. In every situation I’ve been in and from what I’ve read, America is scared to death of death. I know I was before my 21 yr. old son died. No one really knew what to say to me. They either avoided me, said something appropriate, attempted to say something and failed. Let me set the record straight because I know by experience what the grieving want to hear. If you know what you are going to say is absolutely appropriate, please say it. If you have no idea if what you are saying or you haven’t researched it, experienced losing someone or you don’t know what to say, please, by all means just say, “I don’t know what to say.” Then ask about or just comment about their loved one but keep it simple. Example – “I’ve often thought he was so handsome.”, “That is a wonderful picture of him.” Then, and this is the most important part above everything else, just listen. Just sit with the grieving and just listen to them go on and on and on about the loved one they have lost. Trust me, it will mean more to them than you will ever know. Just listen… There’s more but I’ll stop here.

    1. Phil

      I’m so lost and have no clue what to say. I’ve been virtually turned in so many directions I don’t know what is up anymore

  9. Deeply Mourning my brother's passing

    I just lost my 62 yr old brother [unexpectedly], and am shocked by the words an acquaintance of my husband’s left. “Sorry to hear. Life goes on” words left only hours after my brother’s passing. I felt this sentiment to be cold and completely devoid of compassion. I’d very much appreciate your thoughts, thank you.

    1. Liz Walter

      Yes, I agree, that’s far from tactful. I once actually heard ‘You win some, you lose some’ (!). But I think people are strange around death and perhaps don’t mean to be hurtful.

      1. Deeply Mourning my brother's passing

        Thank you, Liz, for taking the time to share your thoughts. Best to you.

    2. IworshiptheLord

      Oh, I am so sorry ! And I am sincere… :'(
      God bless you and help you to surface !

      And thank you very much, Miss Liz Walter ! I learnt a lot of things…
      But I will add that the most important is to be sincere : the person will feel it, whatever you will say.
      For me, it isn’t difficult to explain my feelings and I usually know how to say.
      Saying “I am sorry”, with all your sympathy, is from a distance the best way -for me, whatever.

  10. Sofiah

    I feel it’s a bit strange to instruct people what to say when someone has had such a loss. It seems like the kind of script sales managers use, and misses the point that anything you say to a person who’s lost a loved one should come from the heart. I mean, for the sake of studying Engilsh, it’s great to expand your vocabulary and know words like ‘sympathy’ but still, this feels much like a script, as I said.

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