What to Say (and Not to Say) to a Person who has Lost an Elderly Parent

DSCN6532So 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.

Author: socialbridge

I am a sociologist and writer from Ireland. I have worked as a social researcher for 30 years and have had a lifelong passion for writing. My main research interests relate to health care and sense of place.

11 thoughts on “What to Say (and Not to Say) to a Person who has Lost an Elderly Parent”

  1. When my Mum left my world, I so appreciated hearing stories of how she affected others lives. She lost her leg because of arteriosclerosis and she always loved to dance. A good friend of hers told me now your mom is up dancing with the angels. A small grand daughter wrote a note to her and her dad my son opened the coffin and placed it within, made my heart smile as I know it did mums. Others brought coffee and food without saying a word.

    1. Judith, thanks so much for sharing your experience. I agree that silence with action, like bringing food, can be a very strong way of acknowledging loss.

  2. Hi Jean,

    I recently finished an “Introduction to Thanatology” course, and one of the things I took away from it is the need to develop an effective “grammar” for death that could inspire and animate meaningful communication. All too often, when confronted with death, we can find ourselves struggling for words. Anxiety about death is common and understandable.

    Your four points about speaking with some one who has recently lost a loved one and is immersed in grief is an important way of inspiring communication. Acknowledgement is very important, and I always ensure that I use the person’s name when speaking to the bereaved. Capturing a memory or expressing a kind thought about the positive influence the person had on our own life is also essential. These are great ways to extend empathy to someone in pain.

    I have had items three and four happen to me more than once when I lost my parents. Though I understood that the intent was good, your advice to avoid these approaches is excellent. The effect they had on me was not in any way helpful.

    I also believe that we should try to just “be” with that person who is in pain, to offer them our complete attention and open presence in that moment of exchange. Attending to the bereaved is a sacred moment in time.


  3. Years later I still recall an old Irish lady, a complete stranger, bide her time before coming up to me and saying ‘I’m sorry for your trouble.’ That was as welcome as any fine speech.

  4. I think the hardest thing to hear is often something about how they lived a long life. People don’t realize that even when you know people die and accept it, you still don’t want it to be ‘today’. Not too realistic, perhaps, but emotions aren’t, usually, are they? It always sounded to me as if I should not be feeling grief. But I think we all grieve at the loss of someone we care for, no matter how old.

    I very much agree with Brian about ‘being’ with the person, with full attention. Also acknowledging the death and the loss without editorial comment or suggestion. Thanks again for these thoughtful and helpful posts. ~ Linne

  5. Happy seeing your list, Jean. It’s often hard saying the right words as well as hearing the wrong ones. Your point about older people being better at such communication than the younger generations actually rings true. Nowadays people say a lot of generic stuff that sounds hollow rather than something that really means something to you, as the surviving child. My pet peeve is hearing the phrase about having ‘a good few innings’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s