You have been studying Chinese for a while and feel more and more confident when chatting with native speakers. One day, your Chinese friend tells you sadly, “My grandpa is very sick, and he is hospitalized.” At the first moment you hear the news, your brain starts to look for the appropriate words/sentences to express your sympathy.
If you were speaking English, you would say, “I am sorry to hear that.” However, can you directly translate this sentence into Chinese? 对不起听说这个？我很抱歉听说这个？Right, as you might imagine, we cannot do the direct English-to-Chinese translation in this case.
Now I am going to teach you how to properly express sympathy or condolences in Chinese.
Your colleague Lucy tells you that her dad is very sick and is hospitalized.
In Chinese, we do not usually say, “I am sorry to hear that” in this case. The more common way to show your care is to ask some detailed questions. For example:
- 医生怎么说？What did his doctor say?
- 他在哪个医院？Which hospital is he in?
- 他现在情况怎么样？ How is his current situation?
Also, we like to offer our help by saying:
- 你需要我帮什么忙吗？Do you need any help from me?
- 如果有任何需要我帮忙的地方，请一定告诉我。If there is anything I can help with, please do not hesitate to let me know.
Even though you do not think Lucy will really need help, it is the thought that counts.
Your colleague, Xiao Wang, tells you that his dad passed away yesterday.
The first sentence that pops into your mind might be, “I am very sorry for your loss.” So you tell Xiao Wang, 我对你的失去很对不起. OK, Xiao Wang may still be able to understand what you are saying, however, this is not the authentic way Chinese people will express condolences. In this case, Chinese people usually say:
- 这太突然了。希望你节哀。(literally) This happened too suddenly. Hope you will restrain your grief.
Before writing this article, I also asked many Chinese friends of mine, and they said that they might not say anything immediately. They would gently pat Xiao Wang’s shoulder or arm to show their sympathy and then express their condolence verbally. If Xiao Wang tells you the bad news via email or text message, your answers can be more formal. You could say:
- 这太突然了。真替你和你的家人感到难过。希望你们节哀顺变。This happened too suddenly. I feel sad for you and your family. I hope that you will restrain your grief and adjust to the change.
节哀顺变 is the most commonly used Chinese idiom to express condolences. Literally, it means that you should restrain your sadness and adjust to the change. Also, you could say:
- 希望你坚强一点儿。Hope that you will be strong.
If you express condolences in writing, you could write more formally:
- 刚刚得知你父亲去世的消息，请接收我最真诚的哀悼和慰问。希望你们节哀顺变。I just found out the news that your dad has passed away. Please accept my sincere mourning and condolences. Hope that you will restrain your grief and adjust to the change.
In addition, please be sure that you use 去世/过世 (pass away) instead of 死 (die) when expressing condolences. In colloquial Chinese, people could also use
to inform you of somebody’s death. In Chinese, there are many different words to describe death. For example, an emperor’s death is usually called 驾崩 / 千秋, and an eminent monk’s death is called 圆寂 / 坐化.
In conclusion, the way Chinese people express sympathy and condolences may differ from English, but in both cultures, I believe coming across as sincere is always more important than what you say.