So many search terms that lead to my blog are about how to communicate with someone who has lost an elderly parent. Here’s my very simple advice based on both my own experience and reading around the topic.
1. It is important to acknowledge the loss and perhaps the best way to do this is to say: I was very sorry to hear that your mother/father died. ( I don’t think there’s any point avoiding words like ‘died’ or ‘death.’ )
2. If you knew the parent who died, it can be very consoling to the bereaved child to hear something nice said about him/her. For example, in my case, I found great solace in people saying to me: ‘ Your father was always so kind to me.’ or ‘I’ll never forget the day that your father offered to drive us to Dublin when we were totally stuck.’
3. Do your utmost to avoid mimimizing the loss by saying things that refer to the elderly parent’s age. For example, avoid saying something along the lines of ‘ Oh well, he was a great age. You were lucky to have him/her for so long.’ ( I think this is for the bereaved child to say, if he/she feels that way, but not for an outsider.)
4. Try to avoid telling the bereaved child how he/she should feel. For example, no matter how much the elderly parent suffered, try to avoid saying things like: Oh, you must be so glad he’s out of all that pain or You should have no regrets. You did all you could for him. Again, these are things for the beareaved child to say, if he/she feels like that.
In short, acknowledge and be sympathetic but don’t minimise the loss on grounds of age and, most of all, don’t preach.
I hope this helps in some small way and I would be pleased to hear what approaches worked best for you if you lost an elderly parent.