No matter what you believe or where you live, we all have to face death at some point, in one way or another. Some cultures are very healthy in the way they handle death and some are not. If you don’t happen to be part of a culture where death is a celebration of life, it’s impossible to find the right words, and usually best to say nothing at all.
“I’m sorry for your loss.”
“You’re in our thoughts/prayers.”
“How are you holding up?”
“If you need anything at all, just let me know.”
May seem like nice sentiments, but in reality, to a person who’s grieving, they’ve heard it over and over and over to the point where it sounds quite disingenuous, hollow, and contrived. It becomes more about this bizarre obligatory ceremony, which is more about the person checking off a to-do item than it is about them really giving a shit.
The first thing you really need to think about when someone is grieving is giving them some space. They’re likely overwhelmed with phone calls and knocks on the door, often from people they haven’t heard from in years. I imagine this is similar to when you get hurt and as you lie on the ground get swarmed by people “Are you okay?” even touching you, especially where you’re hurt only making things worse. When you’re in that position it’s easy to find yourself blurting out:
“Get the fuck away from me.”
But, when the pain is emotional, somehow we must contain ourselves and do this song and dance for all those that want to share their condolences.
However, you can’t do nothing right? To do nothing would send the wrong message. My suggestion would be that if you’re actually in close proximity to the person, say nothing, just be there and give them a hug. And, if there’s some distance between you and them and a phone call is necessary, a simple “I love you.” will go much further than any other scripted cliché.