Q. The father of an acquaintance of mine just died at 98 years of age, and I’m uneasy about what to write in a condolence note. Nobody lives forever. The man had dementia for years. Is there something I can say besides “I’m sorry” in this situation?
People are living much longer these days, and obituary pages are filled with notices for people who died in their nineties or even beyond. I just saw a notice for someone who died at 104. In this case, you probably don’t know what the acquaintance is going through or the details of the father-son relationship. It’s important not to project your own feelings. The person may be relieved an ordeal is over. He may have done his mourning a long time ago. On the other hand, he could be grieving a deep loss right now—maybe for the man the father was before dementia struck. Some of us feel bereft at losing even the shell of a person and a hand to hold—if the deceased nourished us with love and acceptance all our lives.
Because families are complicated, the safest thing to write when you aren’t close to the bereaved is: “I just heard about your father’s death. I send sincere condolences.” You can add after the first sentence, “I remember you talking about him” or “You mentioned him the last time we met,” if it’s true. Another option might be: “Please accept my condolences on the death of your father. You are in my thoughts.” Such words are quite enough. It’s when people write lengthy notes that they get into trouble—for example, making erroneous assumptions about how loving or attentive the mourner was during the deceased’s life. Not everyone behaves admirably.
Beware of platitudes, such as “He lived a very long life.” Those words actually minimize the loss and can enrage some bereaved who feel the deceased’s life could never be long enough. Missteps also occur because we tend to believe we should comfort the bereaved, which is usually not possible when we have only a casual relationship with the person. Naturally you want to say the right thing. In your situation, a good condolence note acknowledges the death and expresses sympathy—period. The more you write, the more likely you are to write something insensitive.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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