Finding the Right Expression of Sympathy When Someone Is Grieving

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: our friend English teacher Lida Baker joins us from Los Angeles to talk about expressions of sympathy.

Lida Baker

LIDA BAKER: "The reason that this came up for me is that a friend of mine lost his father last week, and we were over there visiting him and I said what we normally say to a person in our culture when someone has died. I said 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' And I've been writing some materials for teaching English as a second language and it occurred to me that this is a topic that you never see in E.S.L. textbooks. And yet it's so important in a situation where someone is grieving to say the right thing."

AA: "And yet doesn't it seem odd almost to say 'I'm sorry.' I mean, if you think about it, what are you apologizing for? We know what you mean, but -- "

LIDA BAKER: "Well, but it's not an apology."

AA: "Well, right, exactly. So what does that mean?"

LIDA BAKER: "It's an expression of sympathy. And I think this is one of those little traps that people who are learning English can fall into, is not understanding that an expression like 'I'm sorry' can have several different meanings. And of course, one of them, when you step on someone's foot, you say 'I'm sorry.' You apologize. But another meaning of 'I'm sorry' is an expression of sympathy; you feel sad because the other person has lost something or because something bad has happened to that person. So in that situation it's very appropriate to say 'I'm sorry.'

"Death is such a sensitive topic, not only in U.S. culture but in every culture, I think. Even the word itself is something that we're not comfortable saying. And so we tend to find gentler ways of talking about this topic, so that if somebody has died, we'll say, for example, 'I'm sorry for your loss.' Or 'I heard about your father's passing and I'm so sorry.' Or we'll say 'My condolences.'"

RS: "How do you go beyond that in the conversation?"

LIDA BAKER: "Well, usually, if you say to somebody 'I'm so sorry for your loss,' the person might say 'Thank you.' But they might say nothing, and certainly the way I was brought up, when you're in the presence of someone who is grieving, the best thing to do is say you're sorry, express your condolences and then be quiet.

"Let the person who's grieving determine what is going to happen next. If they feel like talking, then you go along with that. But if they feel like being silent, then you need to be comfortable with that as well. That's how my parents raised me."

RS: "Now, to go beyond that in writing, how do you go about doing that?"

LIDA BAKER: "Well, I think in writing, if you're writing your own note, the same things that you would say are appropriate to write. So, 'We send you our deepest sympathy.' Or 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' By the way, I want to say something about the word 'sympathy.' I've received sympathy cards from my students on my birthday. [Laughter]"

RS: "Because, because they're -- go on."

LIDA BAKER: "Well, to them, they're very happy that it's my birthday and they're sharing in my happiness. So to them the word sympathy is a word that you use when you are participating in whatever the other person is feeling. But I think what people who are learning English really have to understand is that in our culture, the word sympathy is always associated with sadness.

"So if you are in the store and you're looking for a card to send somebody, and if that card has the word sympathy on it, then they need to understand that that card is meant -- it's intended to be sent to someone who has suffered a death in the family."

RS: English teacher Lida Baker will have more advice next month about expressing kind words at unhappy times.

AA: By the way, right after the interview, we got this e-mail from Lida: "Hi. I just got home and saw one of my neighbors who normally walks with two dogs. He was walking with just one, so I asked him what happened. He said the other dog died last week. So what did I say? 'I'm so sorry for your loss.' And he replied, 'Thank you for your condolences.'"

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Lida's previous segments can be found at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.