In my experience, the most common phrase used to express sympathy to someone who has lost a loved one is “I’m sorry for your loss.” It’s a very nice sentiment and I believe everyone who uses it means it.
But like any oft-used expression, its overuse can minimize the impact. We use phrases like this because they do express how we feel and we are often at a loss for words during times of great grief, be it death or any other life devastation.
But it would be inaccurate to think that the sixth Spiritual Work of Mercy – comforting the afflicted – is merely about the words we use. Certainly words are important, but during times of affliction and grief it’s our actions not our words that bring the greatest comfort and what will be remembered most by those who are suffering.
There are many things we can do to help alleviate the suffering of someone, depending on the circumstances, but one thing that is most always helpful is presence.
The word compassion literally means “to suffer with” – and presence is that indeed. To sit with someone when they are hurting, even in silence, is an act of compassion and mercy.
Christianity is a religion of presence and ‘suffering with.’ The Gospel of John says “the Word became flesh and dwelt with us.” God came to be with us and to suffer with and for us. He came to comfort the afflicted by both his words and deeds: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28)
So if you’ve ever worried about what to say to someone when they are struggling, remember that words often fail at those times and your loving presence will mean so much more.