The Common Words You Say to Offer Condolences

Holly Case
3 min readMay 24, 2022

I’ve heard them so many times. If I had a dollar for every time someone has said this to me, it would pay for my graduate school education, at least.

Let me know if I can do anything to help.

I’ve said this myself to people before. It seemed like the right thing to say. I genuinely felt bad for their pain and wanted to do something to make it better. And the truth is that I really would have done anything to help them. I stood ready, waiting for the call that never came.

The problem is that those words are essentially meaningless to someone who’s going through a tragedy or monumentally difficult time.

Why those words are meaningless

When someone’s life has been turned completely upside down, whether due to death or major illness, they’re never going to ask you for help. They’re just not.

This doesn’t mean that they don’t need your help. They do need it, quite desperately.

But they can’t ask for it because what they need in that state is beyond the ability to even form words. It’s so much easier just to lie and say that you’re fine. Then, you continue to lie in bed all day while nothing gets done. It’s a trap that you don’t know how to get out of.

Now that I’ve begun to feel my grief, it’s like I’ve unthawed. Where I couldn’t feel anything before, now I feel everything and it’s just more than I can handle.

I recently went three days without a shower — my all-time record. My cat boxes still need to be completely changed. My sheets need to be changed and washed; my son made me a PB&J yesterday and some jam dribbled out onto my bedding. {I normally don’t eat in bed and that’s why. But yesterday, I wasn’t getting out of bed at all.) I have several days’ worth of mail to sort through and open, throwing out the spam mail and keeping what I need to save.

I can’t do anything about it because it all feels too monumentally hard. Impossible, even.

What you can do

When someone you know is going through a time like this, don’t say those words unless you really mean them.

Holly Case

Therapy-informed writer/mom. Widowed young from a great man. Always learning. Healing from generational trauma. 5X Top Writer Parenting/Feminism