Offering a written expression of condolence used to be a staple of polite society. “A letter of condolence may be abrupt, badly constructed, ungrammatical – never mind,” advised the 1960 edition of Emily Post’s Etiquette. “Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.”
But in these days of Facebooking and Snapchatting, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddied at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. “Sorry about Mum. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.”
Follow these tips to master the lost art of condolence (or at least not humiliate yourself).
1. Getting tongue-tied is OK. When I asked for advice from friends on social media, the one overwhelming thing I heard was that admitting you don’t know what to say is perfectly appropriate. “One priest said, “It is much more compassionate and supportive to admit you’re at a loss for words than to compose pithy statements like ‘he’s in a better place’ or ‘your child was so perfect, God wanted her to sit next to him.’
2. Don’t use cliches which are meaningless. When offering condolences, it is difficult to resist any cliches, but at least avoid ones that are flowery ways of stating the obvious. Not really helpful or welcoming are phrases such as, “They’re at rest now,” or “It was their time,” or “I know this is difficult for you.” Keep it easy if you don’t know what to say. Anything truthful and straightforward is better than trying too hard and going too fast, like “I’m sorry for your loss.” Draw on your good memories of the deceased if possible. It helps them realize that you cared for them, too, and that they’re not alone in their sorrow.
3. No comparisons. Resist the desire to suggest that you understand what the other person is going through. Everybody encounters grief differently. Although you may have felt depressed when your loved one died, the individual you write to may have channelled her sorrow into work or hyper-efficient purging of the house.
4. Don’t dodge the ‘D’ words We have become afraid to mention death by name. Loved ones don’t ‘die’ anymore; they’re ‘carried away’ or ‘resting peacefully’. “All the euphemisms make my skin crawl,” one friend griped. Consider following the lead of a police support website that advises law enforcement officials doing death notification to use “simple, straightforward language”. “Don’t be afraid to use the ‘ D’ words – dead, died or death. Terms such as ‘expired’, ‘passed on’ or ‘lost’ are words of denial.”
5. Get real. Grievers hear so many lukewarm phrases that a little straight talk can be a welcome relief. Just be honest and caring.
6. Facebook is not enough. These days many people first learn of the death of a friend’s loved one via social media. The instinct to post a comment or dash off an email is understandable. But everyone I spoke with agreed on one point: heartfelt gestures like these do not replace a condolence note.
7. Writing is not required immediately, there is no time limit on sympathy. In the immediate aftermath, many mourners are exhausted, and many tell me that they especially enjoyed cards that came weeks or even months after death. “One friend told me,” I personally back off doing something right away and offer to take the griever out a month or so later for lunch, coffee or dinner when everyone has returned to their lives and the individual is left alone to deal with the pieces.
If the urge to come up with the right words always makes you feel daunted, do something instead: take the pet of the deceased for a stroll, run an errand, offer to pick up a relative from the airport. Or fall back to what generations of loving supporters have been doing: sending food, such as fruit baskets or casseroles. Have no hesitation in reaching out. At a troubled time, it may seem like you’re upsetting them, but if you can visit them, they need help, warmth, and even a good diversion.
Check out my related post: How a man conquered death to try to win an Olympic gold?