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What is the proper response when someone tells you, for example, that their mother has died? Relatedly, what should you do to express your sympathy? Do you send a card? flowers? bake a casserole?

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3  
bake a casserole... classic. –  Ali Jun 3 '11 at 22:32
    
Technically, this depends on what you thought of the deceased, and also on whether the addressee is a member of the yakuza. –  Mechanical snail Jul 13 '11 at 22:27
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3 Answers

up vote 12 down vote accepted

There is a common phrase for that.

ご愁傷さまです - go shuushou sama desu

For example

お母上が亡くなられご愁傷さまです  I'm very sorry about your mother's death

Regarding sending something, there is a special custom in Japan called こうでん「香典」 - giving money to remaining family members with the purpose of offering it to the departed soul. (Originally, this was used as an alternative of こうか「香華」 - incense and flowers)

In my experience, I have seen this two times: one for a colleague's mother, and one for someone from another department. In both cases, another colleague started to collect money and put it in an envelope to give to them.

And there is another custom, こうでんかえし「香典返し」, which refers to getting back some present/food from them.

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The first is the most common. As a non Japanese always preferable to keep it short, sweet and simple. –  crunchyt Jun 4 '11 at 6:06
    
Did you mean "colleague" instead of "college"? –  Amanda S Jun 5 '11 at 0:33
    
@Amanda, yeah, I fixed it. thanks –  YOU Jun 5 '11 at 4:45
    
I'm just wondering, is お気の毒 inappropriate for this situation? –  Lukman Jun 5 '11 at 4:48
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@Lukman, お気の毒 and かわいそう are not so polite on this case, some people even feel offensive here. At least not directly use when talk to family members, but may used in gossips for some reasons. –  YOU Jun 5 '11 at 5:02
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(お母上様のご逝去を)心よりお悔やみ申し上げます =「(おははうえさまのごせいきょを)こころよりおくやみもうしあげます)」

"I'm so sorry to hear (of your mother's death)"

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Can you please organize your answer better so that non-experts can understand what you wrote? Schematise it... –  Alenanno Jun 3 '11 at 23:05
    
If the answer isn't organized well enough it won't get selected as an answer/upvoted. If you want to read it then I would recommend rikai[chan|kun]. –  Ali Jun 3 '11 at 23:11
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お母上様: mega-polite version of "your mother". Roughly, 母 < 母上 < 母上様 < お母上様. 逝去: formal term for "passing away". ご逝去: more polite. 心より: from my heart. 悔やみ: regret. 申し上げる: very formal version of "to say", in this case, "express". In short, "I express my heartfelt sorrow for your mother's passing." –  SuperElectric Jun 30 '11 at 22:46
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Other users have already provided good answers, but here is mine anyway. When attending to a funeral, the most common thing to say is: ご愁傷さまです (go shuushou sama desu)

If you are writing an email, you can also say go shuushou sama desu, but as @istrasci pointed out you can also say things like 心よりお悔やみ申し上げます (kokoro yori okuyami moushiagemasu), though I wouldn't know if is ok to say at a funeral since it is sounds very much like written language.

Regarding what to send... I'm sorry I have to research that further.

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your answer only repeats the others, did I miss something? Consider commenting instead of posting a duplicate answer. :) –  crunchyt Jun 4 '11 at 6:04
    
ご指摘、ありがとうございました。I'll comment the next time. –  wallyqs Jun 4 '11 at 10:44
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