Q. A neighbor of mine in her late forties drowned in a freak boating accident when her canoe overturned. I want to go to the funeral, but what can I possibly say to her husband and her children, who range in age from 8 to 14?
A. Accounts of sudden accidents grab our attention in the newspapers or on TV virtually every day. Someone survives cancer, only to be killed by a car careening out of control while crossing the street. Or a construction worker falls from a 20-story building when a safety strap breaks. Although any death is disturbing, an unexpected death tests our own sense of safety in the world. A random, senseless accident underscores how vulnerable we all are, especially if the victim is someone we know.
It’s not surprising that you feel tongue-tied at the prospect of talking to your neighbor’s family. In this situation, words do seem inadequate. There is always the fear of saying something “wrong,” something that might offend, make you look foolish or seem insensitive. Yet I’ve found the most appreciated words are usually those that first come to mind when you hear the terrible news, such as, “This is such a tragedy. I can’t believe it. I’m so sorry.” Speaking your unvarnished feelings validates the enormity of what has happened and makes a connection with those left behind.
Another option is, “I don’t know what to say.” We all think it, and it is a powerful statement—one that confirms the catastrophic circumstances involved. Or you might try, “I can’t imagine what you are going through.” The fact is you can’t know the depth of someone else’s pain, grief or sense of loss. The sudden death of a loved one is so hard to bear because it’s such a shock to the mourners. There is no time to prepare, to deal with unfinished business or to say goodbye.
Remember that nonverbal gestures count, too. A touch on shoulder or the arm—or a hug if you’re close to the person—says, “I’m here for you.” Just your presence at a funeral or memorial service makes an eloquent statement. “I felt loved and comforted when so many people attended my husband’s funeral,” one widow told me. “Showing up was a tribute to him, of course. But the support also filled my heart. It wrapped me in a cocoon of caring.”
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at email@example.com.
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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