Condolences: Sharing Warmth in the Face of Loss

Although this is usually a festive time of year, there will always be someone you know for whom the holiday season brings sadness or grief due to the recent death of a loved one, or the annual memory of that loss. I’d like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts with you about the subtle and gentle art of offering condolences. I offer this advice from two significant experiences in my life: the first, a class in graduate school called Death and Dying, and the second, the death of my boyfriend, Justin Schroepfer, in June of 2007.
Above all else, be honest.
First, be honest with yourself. Don’t be afraid to admit to yourself if the news of someone’s loss startles you, causes you deep sadness of your own, or makes you afraid. Then be honest with your friend. When I told one of my classmates about Justin’s death, she said, through her own tears, that what she immediately thought of was how awful it would be to lose her fiance. By allowing me to see the genuine fear and pain the news caused her, my friend showed me how much she really understood how I felt. On the flip side, there is no reason to pretend that you feel something you are not feeling. A short, genuine “thinking of you” or “I’m so sorry to hear the news” is far more valuable than several sentences that mean very little.
Keep it simple.
There is no need for flowery language unless you always talk and write like that. As I mentioned above, even the most simple of words and gestures can have warmth and meaning.

Get out of your comfort zone.
Death is terrifying for most of us. Death that is unexpected, that which occurs under unusual circumstances, or that happens to someone that is ‘too young’ is even more terrifying. Thus one might hesitate to send a note or make a phone call because dealing with such significant emotion is absolutely daunting. Knowing that, though, doesn’t it make it even more important that you push through it and make the contact? Now is when your loyalty and willingness to put yourself on the line for your friend is more important than ever. As humans we have the capacity for great emotion – don’t be afraid to feel something deeply, it’s simply a part of who we all are. Along these same lines, don’t be afraid to send a note to someone with whom you aren’t as close. It is extremely comforting to know that someone is wishing you well when you didn’t know they thought of you much at all.

Focus on them.
The reason to send condolences is not to attempt to resolve the discomfort that you may be feeling after hearing the news, and it is certainly not to do what is considered socially appropriate. Condolences are to show care and support for your friend who is grieving. If you feel inclined to begin a card, email, or text message with “I don’t know what to say”, then perhaps that card, email, or text should not be written.
Tell a (very) short story.
You can help your friend gain a feeling of warmth by sharing happy or special memories of the deceased. “I remember one time when…”   “My favorite thing about your dad was always …”  “Do you remember that thing she said that one time? I’ll never forget it.” Small things such as a smile or a favorite hat can bring up fond memories. Also, stories sometimes can offer hope that your grieving friend will feel better and be able to smile again sometime in the future.
It’s okay to be humorous.
Really! In your storytelling, you might find the opportunity to share a funny anecdote. Otherwise, if you are a funny person, be honest, be yourself. One of the most heartwarming messages I received in the days after Justin’s death said this: “I want to send a hug thru email.  A hug and a smile maybe.  I don’t know how to send the former, but here is a photo which might provide the latter…” and the sender included a funny picture of themselves with a giant dinosaur. I definitely smiled. : ) Like stories, a bit of humor offers hope for future smiles and laughter.
Offer to help, and keep your word.
Grief is exhausting. Luckily, help comes in many many forms. Bake a loaf of banana bread. Bring a bunch of bananas. Wash a few dishes. Offer to stay the night if your friend would be alone. Bring over a light-hearted movie and watch it with them. Hand them tissues if it makes them cry. One very important thing to remember is that if you can’t help, then don’t offer it. This is not the time to let your friend down.
Sign off with grace.
With love, Warmly, Sincerely, Deepest Condolences, With All My Heart, Deepest Sympathy, Much love, A Thousand Hugs. Whatever truly says what you are feeling, say that.
Last, but certainly not least, don’t forget.
It will be weeks and months before your friend is able to recover from his or her grief. They will *never* see the world in the same way again. They will possibly suffer what are called “anniversary effects” on birthdays, holidays, or the anniversary of their loved one’s death. You can do your friend an enormous service by asking them how they are doing a month later, or a year. I received a note from two friends a month after Justin died, telling me that when their dad died, they felt like everyone forgot about them within a month, while they were still hurting. They wanted to make sure I knew someone was still thinking about me.
I must admit that I did recognize the slight irony of taking a class in which, among other things, I learned how to offer condolences, only to be on the receiving end a few months later. Little did I know how valuable the words, actions, and comforting presence of my friends, family, and acquaintances would be to me then. They still are now.
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About the Author: Sara Cherny is a board certified genetic counselor at a major academic medical center. She has been in clinical practice for over four years and has special interests in public health and family communication.

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  1. plm60 says:

    Thank you for sharing and God Bless you Sara. Incredible timimg as my mother-in-law passed away one year ago today. It has been a very difficult time for my beautiful wife, children…all of us. Your words and advice will help me today as I broach the anniversary with them. Best to you and yours.

  2. Kristen Ehrenberger says:

    Thanks for sharing, Sara! The hardest thing about this holiday season was finding appropriate Christmas cards to send to people whom I knew were not having “a joyful Christmas” or some of the other generic peppy messages printed inside. I did always send a card, though.