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I have lived in the U.S. 20 years now but I am yet to find an elegant and eloquent wording to express condolences to somebody upon the death of a close one that does not involve religiosity and prayer ("Your family will be in my prayers").

My native language is Bosnian (Serbocroatian) and we simply say "accept my condolences".

Can you offer some examples of similar elegant, eloquent, and SECULAR wording in English that does not imply God, prayers, religion, heaven, etc.?

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Not about English language, but about etiquette. –  DJClayworth Jun 25 at 17:58
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@DJClayworth Where is the downvote button for comments... this is about finding an expression (in English) whose usage does not offend people who have different beliefs. I'd say that it's about etiquette, but English language usage that defines that etiquette. –  Chris Cirefice Jun 26 at 15:24

9 Answers 9

up vote 72 down vote accepted

I find this question somewhat odd, because by far the two most common ways of expressing condolences to someone recently bereaved are in my experience quite secular and non-religious:

Sorry for your loss

– and

My condolences.

In my own, personal experience, both these phrases are much more common when expressing condolences than “You(r family) will be in my prayers” or anything like that. The latter type (whether based in religion or more secular versions as in Nate’s answer below) might well be said after the basic expression of condolences, à la, “I’m so sorry for your loss; you’ll be in my thoughts”—but I have not frequently heard it used on its own.

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@JanusBahsJacquet, I'm surprised you would associate "You(r family) will be in my prayers" with something one would say to someone they considered a sinner. I and others I know say it because we are praying for the needs and comfort of those suffering loss, and it is often said to others of the same faith. –  Rynant Jun 25 at 19:58
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@Rynant I am guessing that’s because I’m neither American nor religious. I have mostly seen it used on the Internet, and especially in contexts where someone perhaps a bit too religious says it to someone who leads a lifestyle they do not condone (rallies against gay marriage or gay pride, etc.), but do not wish to come off like someone from the Westboro Baptist Church. I am not surprised that it is used genuinely, too; but my own personal experience has unfortunately mainly been of the “I will pray for your poor soul that you are flouting so shamelessly” sense. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Jun 25 at 20:04
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@JanusBahsJacquet, in this brave new world of "anonymous" interaction with strangers on social media, I have seen the use of prayer as a cudgel with which to beat someone over the head, too. Between friends and loved ones however, "you and your family are in my prayers" is not interpreted as praying for their sins, rather, it's praying for strength and comfort to endure their loss. –  Kristina Lopez Jun 25 at 20:29
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"I'm sorry for your loss" seems so trite and overused, to me. How about getting away from the formulaic precise phrase and just speaking from the heart? How about, "I can't imagine what you're going through, and wish I could help you somehow. I've been thinking about you a lot and I'm here for you if there's any way I can help."? Okay, maybe you don't want to say all that, but can you not find some way to speak from the heart? –  ErikE Jun 26 at 2:01
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@ErikE The point of a stock phrase is because in this situation people don't know what to say and in fact there usually is nothing they can say that is actually comforting. It means you can acknowledge their loss and grief without adding a burden that they might feel like they have to buck up or act greatful. It is deliberately unimportant because this is a time for them. –  JamesRyan Jun 26 at 16:25

An appropriate secular substitute for prayers is thoughts.

Your family will be in my thoughts.

It sounds a bit odd if you think about it too hard, but it is a common idiom.

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I have heard plenty of times "You will be in my thoughts and prayers." So I guess I wouldn't call them substitutes, but compliments. Either way, if you're not the praying type, just leave it out. +1 –  fredsbend Jun 27 at 19:29

A popular phrase is "I am sorry for your loss".

A variation is "I am saddened by your loss".

This variation should address, as was pointed out in the comments, that sometimes the word "sorry" implies blame.

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I believe -- without actual evidence -- that this formulaic recitation has been popularized by US television (esp. cop shows). I find it empty and unsatisfying. It's a neutral way of expressing condolence that avoids any implication of blame. Simply saying "I'm sorry," as some doctors have discovered, can be twisted to imply that one is sorry for causing the loss. –  Jim Mack Jun 25 at 16:47
    
thanks @JimMack, I have added a variation to address that. –  Joseph Neathawk Jun 25 at 16:57
    
@JimMack On the other hand, doctors saying "I'm sorry" is almost never usable in court as admission of guilt, and furthermore, apologizing prevents lawsuits far more often than it causes them. It's good practice for doctors to say "I'm sorry that X happened" after an error or loss, even if not caused by that doctor. –  ErikE Jun 26 at 1:57
    
"I am sorry to hear about..." makes it pretty clear that you're expressing sorrow rather than apology. –  David Richerby Jun 26 at 10:54

I have seen and I prefer:

My deepest sympathies go out to you and your family.

Any variation involving "sympathy" is pretty good to me, because that is exactly what you are feeling*.


*Technically, you are likely feeling empathy because you have likely lost someone you know too, but I just don't like the word for some reason.

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"Technically, you are likely feeling empathy..." But you don't express empathy because to do so would be comparing their loss to yours, and it's impolite to remind someone who is actively grieving that others have grieved before them. It would be similar to asking them to put their sadness in perspective, which is not appropriate to ask of them during their difficult times. –  Adam Davis Jun 26 at 23:03
    
@adam I don't agree with that. Saying "I know how you feel" is empathetic and is not rude in almost all situations. –  fredsbend Jun 26 at 23:48
    
"I know how you feel" is an awful thing to say. –  James Jun 27 at 17:02
    
@James Really? I just don't see that. Maybe your hear it differently in your head when you read the words. Imagine if I was to actually say this is would go something like: "I know how you feel. It's tough dealing with loss, but you'll get through it." It empathizes, describes, then encourages. Now, don't be tempted to read this as "Get over it." –  fredsbend Jun 27 at 17:08
    
I was looking for an example of why and figured I'd link this instead. –  James Jun 27 at 17:13

I say "I'm so sorry for your loss" and, if I really mean it (which I most often do), "If there's anything I can do, let me know."

I had a friend tell me the latter several times when I was on the receiving end of his sympathy and it meant more to me than anything anybody else said because I knew I just had to ask and he'd be there to help with whatever. It was such a great help that I've since adopted it.

I'm religious, so I don't have a completely unbiased perspective, but it's been a very handy way to express sympathy and offer more than just words.

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Einstein's condolences to the Besso family:

Now Besso has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

Of course, this then invokes a non-religious philosophical concept, but this does show that you don't have to stick to a short one-liner if you want to avoid religion.

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How is this expressing condolences? There's no sympathy, support, or sadness in "that means nothing" and "a persistent illusion." –  ErikE Jun 26 at 1:59
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I think something like this is great when the deceased and/or their family share a similar view to your own, but if not it comes across as exploiting their loss to make a statement about how great your own scientific worldview is. –  R.. Jun 26 at 12:07
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@ErikE It's a roundabout way of saying Besso isn't entirely gone and still remains with us in some form, which is a very common way of expressing condolences. This is similar to the secular "he will always be in our thoughts", or the religious "you will be reunited in heaven". However, I still don't think it answers the question, since it requires a specific worldview and faith in theories we have yet to prove. Which has the same issues as using non-secular condolences. –  Sybeus Jun 26 at 22:39
    
@Sybeus I think there's a big difference between "Besso isn't entirely gone [as he is continues into the future in altered but real form]" and "Besso isn't entirely gone [because though entirely destroyed, the past is part of the present Whole Thing spacetime continuum]". The second is just cheap weasel-wording. Saying "Besso will always be in our thoughts" is different: despite its wording, it doesn't say where Besso really is--it's just a way of indicating that you care. So, I don't agree with you. –  ErikE Jun 27 at 1:09
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Einstein was a poet. He's saying that despite our loss that we feel, past, present and future are an illusion, there for he's always here. It has nothing to do with Besso being in our thoughts. Understanding the physics helps to understand what he's saying here. –  paqogomez Jun 27 at 6:47

I'm very sorry for your loss, George was a good friend and will be deeply missed.

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Just look them in the eye if possible and say "What a bummer!" (or even just "Bummer!") while shacking your head back and forth slightly.

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Pretty much anything that expresses your feelings about the deceased ("I was so sorry to hear of his passing") or offers an expression of sympathy for what the loved ones are going through. "I'm sorry for your loss" and similar are entirely appropriate.

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