How Should I Feel When Someone Dies?

Dr. Rob,

My father recently passed away. Everyone keeps telling me how sorry they are for me and that it must be awful for me. The problem is, though, that it isn’t. I hated him and he hated me. He was a miserable person and, although I have no idea where he is now, I’m sure he’s better off than he was here. Is there something wrong me for not feeling sad? What am I supposed to feel?

Name Withheld


The only feelings you’re “supposed” to have are the ones you’re experiencing right now. You’re not obligated to feel sad, depressed, lonely, grief-stricken or any other emotion that other people are suggesting you should have. Whatever you feel at this moment, that’s what it should be.

Some might argue that hate, anger, indifference, relief or any other emotions you might be experiencing are simply a defense mechanism to protect against feeling intense grief. I’m sure that’s true in some situations but does not have to be applicable to you. You ultimately know yourself better than anyone and if you’re not grieving, then so be it.

When I was in graduate school I had, for the most part, very easy-going and supportive professors who supervised my clinical work. One exception to that was Dr. L, an intense, psychologically strong woman who worked with me early on in my training. Dr. L was a straight-shooter who told you if and when you sucked at your job. She would often interrupt my verbal updates on patient progress in her German-laden accent with, “Great. Now shut your face and let me tell you what you did wrong.”

I sat down with Dr. L each week to talk about the clients I was “helping.” She actually used the finger quotation marks when she wanted to emphasize my lack of skill. On one particular week the first client we discussed was a late-60’s woman whose mother had passed away a few days prior to our session.

“What did you say when she told you her mother died?” asked Dr. L.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.

“Why did you say that?”

“I assumed that was the polite thing to say. Isn’t that what everyone says when they hear that someone died?”

“Right, they do. What everyone says and what you, the Psychologist, says are not one in the same. Why do I say this, Mr. Dobrenski?”

Because you’re a cold-hearted bitch who loves to make people, me specifically, miserable? “Because therapists have poor social skills?”

She shook her head in frustration. “No. Think about it. By telling her ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ you telling her what you think she should feel: sadness, regret, grief. You’re pressuring her to experience something that might not be there.”

It made a lot of sense. “She did look a bit awkward when I said that, maybe a little guilty.”

“I’m not surprised. She is an older woman. Her mother could have been in her 90’s, maybe even older. Maybe her mother was in great pain or enfeebled or needed constant care. What if your client was relieved to not have that responsibility any longer? What if she felt liberated? Do you think she’d share that emotion with you if you’ve told her that she should be sad?”

Again, Dr. L was spot-on. “I understand.”

“You should drop the phrase ‘I’m sorry’ from your therapeutic vocabulary,” she said with her usual conviction.

“I’m s…okay. What should I say in those situations?” I asked.

“What about, ‘how do you feel about what’s happened?’ or ‘tell me your thoughts and feelings about this?'”

Both seemed a little foreign and clumsy but I got her point. I went into the next session and apologized, ironically, for giving my condolences. She accepted and ultimately revealed that a large part of her was in fact relieved that her mother had passed away. While they didn’t necessarily have a strained relationship, the client felt free not having to take care of her anymore. And once she acknowledged that without being judged, she felt validated.

I hated it when Dr. L. was right.

I share this story with you because your experience with your father’s passing needs to be your own and you can’t let friends, family, or society dictate your emotional state. Whatever you have going on: relief, anger, cheer…just acknowledge it as what it is, without judgment. If those feelings change you will deal with those new emotions then. But for now just try to be comfortable with what you have.

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19 Responses to “How Should I Feel When Someone Dies?”

  1. Wayland says:

    Good advice man. I think those of us outside of your profession should do the same instead of saying, “Sorry.”

  2. s says:

    That’s a pretty good story, will keep it in mind for practice.

  3. Tracie says:

    This is a timely entry, as death has been on my mind a lot this week; my boyfriend’s aunt died last night after a lengthy illness, so I’ve been preparing myself to go into comforting mode.
    Saying “I’m sorry” is very deeply ingrained in lots of people. It might seem like the most acceptable answer because it (to the speaker) is an easy segway into inquiring about the listener’s wellbeing (“I’m so sorry, are you okay?”). Dr. X made an excellent point, and I will try to take heed of it in the next few days.
    Name Withheld, I went through a similar experience when my grandfather died. He was a terrible, abusive, violent person, and I felt nothing except relief for my grandmother when he finally passed. When people would offer their condolences, I didn’t handle it as well as I could have. I usually responded with “I’m not sorry, he was a very abusive and cruel man.” I think this threw a few people off and I’m kind of sorry now for how brash I must have sounded.

  4. Hannah says:

    Hey!
    Great post. I just read my sister’s psych book and it was on kids dealing with death, and I was thinking back to how a family friend lost their 4th child to SIDs. A little after that my best friend’s grandma passed away. In both cases, having experienced my grandpa’s death when I was 15, I knew better than to say too much to comfort them but just to sit there and listen. I always felt akaward about saying I’m sorry, and I’m glad that you finally resolved that issue of .. what should you say.
    Great sharing, very educational and useful. =)

  5. Esther says:

    A former boss of mine once told me in conversation that his twin brother had died (fifteen years before the conversation). When I responded with the words, “I’m sorry,” he had a rather shocking reply. At least, it was shocking to me at the time.
    He said, “It’s okay, he was a jerk anyway.” Then he proceeded to tell me the sordid tale of his brother’s life which ended when his brother drove drunk/high and his brother’s last act was to kill someone else in the car crash.
    I think it’s okay to stick up for your feelings if you don’t feel sad about someone’s death. However, it’s a good idea to be polite back to the people who say “I’m sorry.” It’s what we were all taught to say.

  6. Josh says:

    In a world so quick to judge, why must we continue to judge ourselves?

    This post strikes a unique chord with me as my grandfather is on the verge of losing his ongoing battle with gallbladder cancer. I found it weird that my dad showed no signs of grief over the prospect of losing his father but I later learned that, as a child, my dad never really felt loved by his parents. I feel sort of regretful now, having apologized the way you did rather than being supportive of whatever he was feeling.

  7. I have learned a lot about assuming an emotion after a common social experience. It has been a challenge to not sound like a stereotype, “So how did that make you feel?”…..but there is value in the inquiry.

  8. yellowbuzz says:

    This is the first time I’ve read an entire post of yours after a friend has kept telling me how funny you are. From the twitter posts I have to totally agree with her. It’s quite ironic that the first post I read is about what we should be feeling in a certain situation. It reminds me so much of social expectations and what is acceptable and what is not. I remember when I was a teenager and my Nanna died unexpectedly. It was the first time I had any experience of death. I didn’t know what to feel and I felt guilty at her funeral that I didn’t cry, especially because we were close. What I did feel was something that I can only describe as numbness. I did cry but I did so in my own time and in my own space some weeks later.

  9. Kate says:

    I have, in some ways, an opposite experience…

    My dad died when I was 6. I get one of two responses when the subject is inevitably first brought up.

    1. the person who (usually inadvertently) bought it up seems to feel very guilty about mentioning it, and apologies both in the ‘condolences’ sense and ‘i’m so sorry for bringing it up!’. Most then change the subject – very few are brave enough to ask any further questions, such as how he died, as if I might immediately burst into tears. It was over 13 years ago, I can talk about it quite comfortably. In fact, I like talking about my dad.

    2. The person (usually someone who has had a similar experience) states that i ‘couldn’t have remembered him much then’. This is the most hurtful comment I ever receive, as it implies that somehow, my young age means it didn’t really affect me that much. it takes everything in me not to say “YES, actually, I DO remember him, though not as well as I’d like and more memories slip away from me every day. But I’ll thank you not to patronise me, or my feelings, about something you, actually, seem to know NOTHING about’.

  10. Disequilibrium says:

    Err…pardon me if I disagree with Dr. L. If I were in therapy when a close family member died, I WOULD appreciate it if my shrink stopped playing shrink momentarily for some human-to-human social ritual. Not everything has to be fodder. “How do you feel about that” sounds so mechanistic and unfeeling.

    That said, I do appreciate your discussion that relationships are complicated, and one often doesn’t feel what one “should” feel around the event.

  11. Babette says:

    As one who has sought the expertise of shrinks, I have to comment that I “feel” as though asking about my feelings in the manner described as being very false. I think if someone doesn’t come out and say “I’m sorry,” at least make a statement like “how terrible!”–it would make the patient “feel” more of a connection and more willing to open up.
    I came across this site while wondering if my lack of sadness at the news of the death of a former friend was a reasonable response, considering the fact that the person stole money from and made a complete fool of me, then proceeded to call ME a thief and a user when I ended the relationship.

  12. Mochaa says:

    This was a very good entree. Something happened in my life and everyone seems to have an opinion on how i should feel. Thanks so much for your good old fashion sense. Apreciative!!

  13. Catherine says:

    I really enjoyed this entry.

    I spent three years after my mothers passing for feeling guilty that i felt a great sense of relief when she died. The sense of guilt was heightened when someone would say “i am sorry”, and in my head I would respond “why? I’m not, I’m glad that f**ing bitch is dead.

    I felt even more of a sense of relief when i was told (by my shrink) that the feelings that i had were okay and the guilt and the anger slowly melted away.

    Now depending on the person I just smile or say its better this way.

    It’s important to remember that everyone handles loss differently.

  14. Jeff says:

    I’ve had many people telling me they’re sorry about a recent death in the family. It works for me. I’m more interested in that I feel out of sorts in general since this death. My mind is tired

  15. Clover says:

    I haven’t gone through your entire blog, but I was wondering if you’ve ever covered something on pet loss? How does a counselor counsel someone grieving over a pet, rather than a human?

    I think it can be really confusing to grieve for a pet. I’ve known friends who didn’t know if the incredible sadness and tears they had were normal or not. Some of them were lost on who to turn to, because society tends to tell you to brush off the death of an animal, and they were afraid of being seen as overly dramatic.

  16. shortcake says:

    Hiya, this blog was really good. My grandfather passed away last night from a sudden heart attack. My mum woke me up at seven this morning to tell me of the news. My dad who is son to my grandad had been home a couple of minutes after coming back from sailing when he got phone call. He ran out the door to drive to the QMC. This is what my brother said as I was in bed. My brother who’s 14 was awake when the call came and he ended up sleeping downstairs in our lounge on a sofa and my mum slept on the other. Early this morning my dad came home and slept on some cushions in the lounge. I’m only a couple of years younger than my brother. I also have a younger sister and a younger brother ( my little bro didn’t really understand very well.) All of my family were crying apart from my younger brother who was just talking away. At about midday me, my mum, dad and older brother went to see him in the chapel of rest. There were more tears. After a bit my aunty and uncle ( who is also my grandad’s son ), my grandma, and great aunt and uncle ( who is his brother ) came……..and so did more tears. I did feel sad about my grandad’s death but from this post I undrstand that not everyone does. In later life I will try to not say ” I’m sorry” as they might not be sorry. My friend texted to say her and her family were sorry which to me showed they cared and to me made me feel a bit better. But I now know that others may not feel the same. This post has been really helpful and I hope everyone gets over relatives deaths ok if they need to get over it.

  17. shortcake says:

    I have many good memories of my grandad aswell. 🙁

  18. shortcake says:

    To anyone who has lost a relation it feels good to talk about it and it don’t matter if you cry or not. :'(

  19. K says:

    Great article and I’m glad to have found it. A person I considered a dear friend for 30+ years but not a friend for the last few years died this morning and I was shocked and a bit disturbed to feel nothing upon learning of her death. It’s nice to know it’s okay to feel whatever you feel. I wasn’t sure how to deal with feeling nothing.

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