There are times when language fails, whether you’re in Asia, the Americas, Europe or elsewhere. These moments often involve extreme emotions: sadness and joy, fear and love.
One of the most extreme is the sorrow of loss. These are often times when nothing you can say will help. But you have to try, and trying to expressing condolences is even more challenging in a second language.
This happened to me a little over 10 years ago. One of my former teachers emailed me and mentioned that her father wasn’t doing well. I was busy preparing to move to Japan to teach English in the countryside, but it would have been rude of me to ignore her. At that point my language skills were strong, but I hadn’t spent an extended period in Japan, so I wasn’t quite sure how to respond.
がんばって (ganbatte, “Do your best”), even with the polite imperative ください (kudasai, please) attached, seemed light and almost inconsiderate, as did 元気 出してね (Genki dashite ne, “Chin up”) and しっかりね (Shikkari ne, “Stay strong”). These phrases work well in most situations when someone needs an emotional pick-me-up or some tough love.
So I did what I often do when confused: consult a native speaker. I asked my friend Yurie, who had gone to high school in the U.S. and had a foot in both cultures.
She recommended the phrase 心残りの無い様に、自分の体に気をつけて十分看病してあげてください (Kokoro nokori no nai yō ni, jibun no karada ni ki o tsukete jūbun kanbyō shite agete kudasai, “Please care [for your father] well while also taking care of yourself so that you have no regrets”). The English translation I’ve provided is a little stilted, but it’s important to capture all aspects of the original Japanese: It’s a wonderful phrase that balances consideration for both the caregiver and the one being cared for.
But you don’t always have to use such elaborate phrasing in Japanese. First, you should use a Japanese phrase of response. If a death is a surprise or an accident, you can say そんな…大変でしたね (Sonna … Taihen deshita ne, “Oh my. … That must’ve been awful).
Even your basic ああ、そうですか (Aa, sō desu ka, “Oh, I see”) is a perfectly decent way to respond initially when confronted with the news of a death. You can move on to the more substantive verbiage after that.
If you have met the person who passed away, you can express further detailed surprise by noting their previous health, if that indeed was the case: あんなにお元気そうだったのに (Anna ni o-genki sō datta no ni, “[He/She] looked so healthy …”).
Then it’s time to move on to the core of your condolence: ご愁傷様です (Go-shūshō-sama desu, “You must be grieving terribly”). This phrase is the most basic Japanese expression of condolence, and it functions similarly to お疲れさまです (O-tsukare-sama desu, “Thank you for your efforts,” or literally, “You look tired”) and ご馳走さまでした (Go-chisō-sama deshita, Thank you for the meal, or literally, “That was a feast”). Go-shūshō-sama desu works well in conversation, and you can make it more formal by swapping the desu for でございます (de gozaimasu), a more respectful version of the copula.
If you need something more versatile that can be used in conversation or in written correspondence, then you can use お悔やみ申し上げます (O-kuyami mōshiagemasu, “I offer my condolences”). An equivalent written-only version is 哀悼の意を表します (Aitō no i o hyō shimasu, “I express my condolences”). This is used in 弔電 (chōden, telegrams of condolences).
Don’t be afraid to admit the limits of your expressive capacity: 何を言えばいいか、ちょっと … (Nani o ieba ii ka, chotto …, “[I’m not quite sure] what to say”) or, in more casual company, 何ていったらいいか … (Nan te ittara ii ka, “[I don’t know] what to say”) are unfinished phrases that imply you don’t how to express something. You can also complete both phrases with the verb 分かりません (wakarimasen, “I don’t know”) to make this more clear.
It’s nice to offer some kind of support as well, even if the person is unlikely to take you up on the offer. Two phrases that work well in this situation are 私に できることがあったら言ってね (Watashi ni dekiru koto ga attara itte ne, “Tell me if there’s anything I can do”) and 何か力になれる事があったら、いつでも言ってね (Nanika chikara ni nareru koto ga attara, itsudemo itte ne, “Tell me anytime if there’s anything I can do that would help”). Both can be made more formal by replacing ne with kudasai.
Sometimes you can help by being out of the way. 私には気を使わなくていいから楽にしていて (Watashi ni wa ki o tsukawanakute ii kara raku ni shite ite, “Just relax and don’t worry about me”) is a way to assure someone that you understand their attention is elsewhere.
And, depending on your relationship with the person, you can add a bit of realism by letting them know that time may be the only thing that heals the wound: 時間が解決してくれるのを待つのみなのです (Jikan ga kaiketsu shite kureru no o matsu nomi na no desu, “You can only wait for time to resolve [the pain] for you).
Even if you bungle some of these, your intent should translate. Communication is difficult in the best of times, so it’s good to be prepared for the worst so you can help share the pain and perhaps lighten someone’s load, even a small amount.