“I am sorry”
Whether at the hospital, a visitation, the funeral, or following a conversation surrounding death, this phrase is one that grieving people often encounter. For some, “I am sorry” is meaningful and received with the good will that is intended, but for others this statement feels like an incomplete or insincere sentiment. Of course it is not for lack of sincerity on the part of the person expressing their sympathy, the griever’s reaction or feeling toward “I am sorry” is usually due to numerous people using this phrase to express sympathy and the ambiguous nature of “I am sorry”.
The word sorry if defined by a dictionary can mean “to be grieved or sad” but it can also be an expression of regret. When sorry is used in conjunction with “I am” we do not typically think of the sentiment meaning “I am sad” we think of it meaning “I am regretful” or “I am apologizing”. This can be very confusing to a bereaved person as statements are often taken very literally and are not interpreted but taken as they are conventionally used. So “I am sorry for your loss” can be literally interpreted to mean “I regret your loss” or “I apologize for your loss” which places ownership for death that is not possibly your responsibility.
I have heard people counter to the well intentioned sentiment “What are you sorry for?” leaving the message giver feeling misinterpreted, defensive and often hurt and the receiver of the message often feeling the same.
So why do we continue to say “I am sorry” to comfort someone who has experienced a death or trauma? Possibly because as a community this phrase has been used for generations to express sympathy, we have heard our families use “I am sorry” when they run up against grief? We could feel uncomfortable with death and grief and use the common expression to deter from our own feelings surrounding death or it could be that we just do not know what else to say?
There are other options to “I am sorry.” Using words that sincerely communicate your feelings like “I am sad for you,” “I cannot imagine what you are feeling right now,” or “I hope you are gentle with yourself and take the time that you need.”
People that are experiencing grief really need to feel supported and sincere emotion and sentiment are important to them. It is okay to say “I do not know what to say,” if that is truly how you feel. And if “I am sorry” is your statement of comfort, that is okay too, just some food for thought next time you encounter grief or death.