Q. My co-worker was in the middle of a messy divorce when her soon-to-be ex-husband died of a sudden heart attack. She has a 4-year-old son. My question is should I send a condolence note – and if I should, what can I say? It’s such a complex situation and I don’t want to write anything inappropriate.
“Complex” is certainly the right word. In your place, I would send a note. It’s always appropriate to express compassion and concern, regardless of the circumstances and who did what to whom. First and foremost, however, don’t make any assumptions about how your colleague feels. Anyone in this situation is likely to have lots of mixed feelings (including, possibly, guilt), and you don’t want to go there.
This person also faces painful losses. She and her spouse loved each other once and created a child together, so there are lots of memories. Her son has lost his father, and she must comfort him and help him feel safe and cared for. She’s lost a partner with whom she could share parenting concerns and responsibilities. In addition, the financial fallout of his death could be positive or negative. You never know.
The best thing you can do is keep your note brief, so you don’t get into trouble. Focus on what you do know: The death was unexpected. Her son has had a devastating loss. This is a time of sadness and turmoil. And it is possible to respond in a kind, caring, supportive way.
You can write something like: “I just heard about Ron’s death. What a shock this must be,” or “I’m so sorry to hear about ---. I can’t imagine what you have to deal with.” Or, “It’s so sad to hear about ---. It’s hard to believe this could happen to such a young man. My heart goes out to your son Timothy.”
You might close with a line such as: “You and your son are in my thoughts at this terrible (or difficult) time,” or simply, “I send my deepest condolences.” These lines also can be handwritten at the bottom of a printed, store-bought condolence card, if you prefer. However, choose a card that says only, “With Sympathy” or something comparably simple. You don’t want a “flowery” card full of sentiment – just one that conveys thoughtfulness and acknowledges the death.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.