Our family received some terrible news over the weekend…my cousin’s 16-year old son was killed in a car accident. It’s unimaginable the kind of pain a parent must feel when losing a child, and it can be hard to know exactly what to say, or what not to say, at a time such as this.
We’ll be attending the funeral on Wednesday, and I want to make sure that I have the right words when I see my cousin and her husband. If I’m not prepared, or I’m caught off guard, I tend to blurt out the first thing that comes to mind…and sometimes, it’s not the best thing.
So, I did a little research on how best to convey condolences, whether you’re writing a note or extending them to someone in person. And along with finding some useful advice and good examples, some of what I learned surprised me…so I thought I would share this information with you.
Here are 7 things to keep in mind when expressing your condolences:
1. Keep your sympathies short and sweet.
This is especially true if you’re at a loss for words and don’t know exactly WHAT to say. My research showed that survivors preferred short notes of heartfelt sympathy to long, drawn-out letters. One widow said this, “By the time I’d get to the end of a long note, I could no longer read the words because of the tears.”
When my girlfriend suffered a miscarriage, it was especially difficult because we were both pregnant at the time. I found myself struggling to find the right thing to say. I finally dropped off a couple loaves of freshly baked bread and scones at her home when she and her husband were at the hospital with a short note, “I’m so sorry for your loss. You’re in my thoughts.” Later, she told me how effective that simple gesture was.
2. Avoid canned statements and clichés.
Here are a few things NOT to say:
a. “She’s in a better place.” I’d bet that her mother thinks that a better place would be with her family.
b. “God doesn’t give you more than you can handle.” For one thing, losing a child IS more than a lot of us could handle and you’re also assuming that the survivor is religious. If he/she isn’t…those statements will be of NO comfort whatsoever (and probably somewhat offensive).
c. “At least you have other children.” Though knowing that your other children need you might be an incentive to carry on…it still won’t make losing a child easier.
d. “You can always have more children.” One child can’t replace another.
e. “It’s for the best.” This is probably not something for you to judge.
3. Avoid comparing the loss to something you’ve experienced.
One woman who’d lost her child received a sympathy note in which the writer compared her loss to the recent loss of their family pet. Rather than being comforted, the woman was offended.
Because everyone grieves differently, saying, “I know how you feel…” or “I felt the same way when…” isn’t effective either because chances are you DON’T know how they feel and you’ve probably NEVER felt the same way.
4. Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died.
A common theme that I picked up among people who’d lost children is that they worry that their child will be forgotten. Talking to your friends about their child, using the child’s name, and sharing memories about their child can be comforting…but I would also be careful to take cues, because what might be comforting for one, might not be for another.
5. Don’t offer to help…just do it.
Taking over a couple of meals is always a nice gesture, and so is picking up the slack with some of the other day-to-day tasks of running a household, such as picking the kids up from school, offering to watch the family pet, or helping out with the shopping or cleaning.
It’s been my experience, however, that people are hesitant to ask for help like this, and may even decline the offer. When one of my girlfriends had a critical health crisis with her oldest child just weeks after she’d had her third baby, she said that it was incredibly helpful (and much appreciated) when a group of her friends took turns spending time at her home…without being asked. Because she had a nanny, she didn’t think she needed the extra help, but she did.
6. Add a personal touch.
Mentioning something that you admired about the deceased, or sharing a memory of him/her that you cherish, can be comforting for the survivors. For example, “Joe always had a smile on his face and a genuine concern for others. He could always tell when I needed a little cheering up, and was more than happy to share a funny story with me. He was a wonderful man and will be sorely missed.”
7. Remember the birthday or anniversary of the loved one’s death.
I definitely wouldn’t have thought of this one myself, but it truly seems to be something that survivors are touched by as it shows that they aren’t alone in missing their loved one. It also reassures them that their loved one is not forgotten.
According to Real Simple Magazine, it’s never too late to send a sympathy card. Ideally, sending your condolences within a week is best, however if you’ve learned of someone’s death after time has passed, don’t hesitate to send a note of support…even if it’s months later.
The magazine also offered these five strategies for expressing your condolences:
Don’t be afraid to send a sympathy note. People shy away from writing because they don’t want to remind the grieving of their loss or they don’t know what to say. But holding back sends the wrong message.
If you’re at a loss, be honest. Write “I don’t know what to say, but I want you to know I’m thinking of you.”
Use the deceased’s name. This helps both you and the recipient feel connected to him or her.
Never tell people to look on the bright side. “He’s better off” is more hurtful than helpful.
Avoid using the words died and dead. A better phrase is “your loss,” because that’s what the recipient is struggling with.
Here’s an example of a well-written sympathy note:
I was deeply saddened to learn of your grandfather’s passing. Please know that you and your family are in our thoughts/prayers during this difficult time. Your grandfather was a true southern gentleman and a joy to be around. We always looked forward to his interesting stories with great anticipation. He touched our lives and will be missed.
With deepest sympathies,
I guess the thing that I came away with most is this: though nothing you say will make a grieving family member or friend feel better, letting them know that you’re there if they need support and they’re not alone in their grief…can (and hopefully will) provide some comfort.
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