By Helen Fitzgerald, CT
Focusing only on happy thoughts, it is usually easy for most of us to write an anniversary or birthday greeting. But writing a condolence note is something altogether different because, quite often, we don't know what to say. Feeling awkward and uncomfortable, we may even put the task off until the time to write has seemingly passed. Because of our own discomfort, the bereaved can be left feeling hurt and angry, their loss unappreciated. Friendships can suffer as well.
In today's commercial world, it's easy to find sympathy cards of every description but difficult to find something appropriate if you don't know what "appropriate" is. Was your relationship distant or close? Impersonal or intimate? Thinking about the nature of your relationship should help you find a message that comes close to what you might want to say.
It is what you, yourself, write that is the best condolence message. Reflecting your genuine thoughts and feelings, such a note might be only a few sentences. Or it might be a page or more, depending on what you want to say. However, it's generally a good idea to make your note fairly short because people in mourning often have difficulty concentrating on longer messages.
HOW TO GET STARTED
It is a good idea to refrain from using some of the common clichés. Here are a few of them:
• "I know how you feel." You should not say this unless you really have had a similar experience. Also, grief is different for everybody. Even if you have had a similar experience, it may be better simply to say, "I, too, have lost a son, and I'm so sorry."
• "She's in a better place." Meant to be reassuring, statements like this come across as hollow platitudes that neither comfort the bereaved, nor convey genuine feeling.
• "He's at peace now." This is another example of a similarly hollow statement which is hardly helpful to a father after the suicide death of his son. His response could be: "I know he isn't in pain now, but he has passed his pain on to us and now we have to live with it."
• "Put this behind you and get on with your life." What life? Such "advice" is hard to hear when the meaning of life is suddenly unclear. After a death, the bereaved often must redefine who they are and how they fit into the scheme of things.
• "It's part of God's plan." What plan? God planned to have a little girl fall down a well or an airplane to explode in mid-air? Aside from the implied heresy, words like these are particularly hard to hear if the bereaved is already feeling some anger and disappointment toward God.
• "Call if you need anything." It becomes obvious to the bereaved that people use this phrase to get themselves off the hook. The bereaved will probably not call.
• "You should" or "you will." Comments that start this way are too directive and may not apply at all. If you want to give advice, start your sentence with, "Here is something for you to think about…"
Getting started is usually the hardest part. It is like an artist facing a large, blank canvas. Once that first brush stroke of paint has been applied, the picture begins to take shape. The following may be helpful to you in getting started:
• "I'm so sorry to hear that John has died" may be all you need to start your message.
• "You are in my thoughts and prayers" will work if it's true.
• "We will all miss Sally; she touched so many of our lives" is good if that's how you feel.
• "What I am feeling right now is hard to put into words." Since this is probably quite accurate, it won't hurt saying so.
• "He was such a creative person, and I am so sorry he died." Addressing the qualities of the person who died will enable you to reveal indirectly how highly you valued that person.
No matter how you start, you might add a few sentences about your relationship with the deceased or stories of what you did together. Those in mourning want to hear stories about their loved ones. They want to see the deceased through the eyes of others. For example, a mother whose son had died found out that her son often stopped at the local nursing home on his way home from school, just to visit with the aging residents for a few minutes. This made her feel so pleased and proud of her son. Try to think of things like this that the bereaved will want to know.
Endings are important as well. Here are a few suggestions on ending your condolence note:
• "Our love and support will always be here for you."
• "I will be calling you next week to check in on you." Don't say this if you don't intend to follow through.
• "I would like to drop by on Wednesday but will call first to see if that is a convenient time for you." Saying this tells the bereaved that your friendship continues as before. (Deaths sometimes change one's relationships.)
• "Saturday is a free day for me to come over and help…" Specific offers of help mean something while general offers don't.
• "I will keep you in my prayers." OK if true.
Difficult as they are to write, condolence notes provide us with ways to convey our love and friendship to others at times when they have the greatest need for what we have to offer. When such times arise, give it your best.
Also by Helen Fitzgerald:
Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and lecturer. Her books include The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide, The Mourning Handbook and The Grieving Teen. She has appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation.
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