A message with the subject line “sad news” was in my email inbox this morning. I get these messages from my congregation all the time and it’s helpful to know that a member has experienced a loss so I can express condolences when I see them. But I’m always perplexed when friends, colleagues, and even family members share bad news with me this way. Email is a casual way to communicate a very serious and difficult subject. I often wonder, how do they expect me to respond? If I take the time to write and mail a personal note, they may be hurt that it took me so long to respond. I’m often not comfortable picking up the phone to call; after all, they weren’t comfortable using the telephone to convey the news to me.
So how do you handle and respond to an email that shares the death of a family member or friend?
It’s easy to say the wrong thing when writing about death in a personal note, but even more so when responding to an email. So I always compose a draft in my word processing program. I answer the email by mirroring the message. If the email shares the names of loved ones, I use them. If they indicate plans for the funeral and a family gathering, I’ll comment on that. In other words, I respond to the information that has been provided. In this way, I express my condolences in a format that should be both comfortable and comforting to the recipient.
I always use spellcheck and then print out the draft and proof. Only when I am sure it reads well and is free from errors do I copy and paste it in my email program. Here is an example of what I might say:
I’m so sorry to hear that Bob’s sister Melissa has died. I remember how happy you were that you would be close to her and Ted with your move to Florida. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to lose a sibling and I’m terribly sorry that you and Bob have to face this loss again. Your family will be a real comfort to you both and I’m glad you will have time together. I’ll keep you both in my thoughts and prayers.
Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle Store. Click here to order.
Image: Flickr Creative Commons / Horia Varlan