How to Express Condolences Without Saying Something Stupid
Until recently, I felt awkward and unprepared when someone I knew experienced the death of a family member. My reactions were typically neither swift nor smooth. Stockpiled sympathy cards were rarely accessible when needed. Visitations and memorial services often conflicted with my schedule. Plus, I was never sure whether my presence would be comforting or annoying.
I just didn't have much firsthand experience with these types of things. Still, I tried to do the best I could, observing other friends’ actions and hoping that whatever steps I took were welcomed and encouraging, not intrusive or depressing. After receiving condolences when my mom died a year or so ago, I became better equipped to handle this task. The types of messages that I received were varied, making me realize that there is not one right way but many ways to express sympathy. (See also: 25 Ways to Communicate Better Today)
Here are ways of expressing condolences that have worked for me.
Post a Message on Facebook
Use Facebook only if the news has been shared publicly, preferably on your friend's wall. Realize that your job is to express sympathy, not announce the death or discuss details surrounding the death or the family’s reaction to the world.
Note that some FB announcements are straightforward, like “My grandmother died yesterday.” But others are subtle, such as “I will always remember my dad from this picture.” Confirm the death by reading other wall posts or checking your local newspaper. Then offer a kind response in the same tone as your friend's announcement.
Send a Card
Buy and send a card, or write a note that expresses your sympathy. Say that you are sorry to hear about the death and, if you know you can follow through, add offers of help or support. And, while it is usually fine to share your experiences that may be similar to the one your friend is dealing with, don’t assume that you know exactly how she feels or what she is thinking right now.
The great thing about sending a card is that the recipient can reread these and feel your sympathy again at a later time. Sure, she can pull up your email from her archive, but the physical aspect of a card or note (and the extra effort you took to sign your name, address an envelope, and buy a stamp) is comforting.
Send an Email
The advantage of email is that you can respond quickly and reach those who may be traveling to be with their families and/or arranging for services. So, if you correspond with a friend or acquaintance via email on a regular basis, then this method is fine. Just say that you are sorry to hear about the death and wanted to make sure that you were able to get in touch sooner, rather than later.
Leave a Message on Legacy.com or an Online Guestbook
Express sympathy and share a memory of a positive experience with the deceased. Don’t reference the circumstances of the death; that is, avoid saying that you were “shocked” and instead state that you were “saddened” by the news.
Most people do not call because they are concerned that the family is usually overwhelmed immediately following the death. Close friends may call to express sympathy and offer assistance with arrangements, meals, etc.
Visit Your Friend at Home
Paying a visit is a kind, memorable way of expressing condolences but should be reserved for those with whom you are close and have known for a while. The days immediately following a death can be busy and difficult, so pick your time carefully, calling ahead or scheduling a time via email.
If you feel conflicted about a visit, stay away or bring food as an excuse for a short visit. Tell your friend (or her family member who answers the door) that you are sorry about the death and can't stay long but you wanted to bring something that could be helpful in the next few days. Grieving families are not picky, but many may be inundated with food in a short period of time. To be extra helpful, consider these food-giving tactics: 1) bring a frozen entree with reheating instructions that can be used immediately or later in the week, 2) give a gift card to a favorite restaurant or deli that will make choosing the next meal easy, or 3) give non-perishable items that can be stored easily, such as a basket of fresh fruit or healthy snacks.
Go to the Visitation or Funeral
If you want to express your condolences (and don’t know the deceased very well), then attend the visitation or wake. These are typically dress-up affairs and black is still appropriate. Most will have receiving lines that allow you to talk with your friend and meet the family. Introduce yourself, explain how you knew the deceased, and express your sympathy. Depending on the length of the line, share a story about the deceased that the family members may have never heard.
If you knew the deceased or are particularly close to the friend, attend the funeral in addition to the visitation (though sometimes these are combined). Your goal is to be present and show your support as there will be little time to speak with your friend during the funeral; remember to sign the guest register for a remembrance later.
Say Something When You See the Person
This technique can be problematic because you may not be able to predict how soon you will see the person and whether you will be able to speak privately to her when you do. Still, face-to-face contact is a great way to express sympathy to someone, whether she is a long-time friend or a recent acquaintance. Most people will appreciate your acknowledgement, especially if the death is fairly recent (less than a month or so ago). If more time has passed, then consider saying something like, “Hey, I should have said something before but I wanted you to know that I was sorry to hear about your grandmother.”
What will probably happen next is usually one of two things:
- She thanks you and then moves to another topic. She may not be ready to talk about the death, doesn’t feel like sharing her thoughts or feelings with you, or is focused on another subject.
- She shares details about the situation, the cause of death, or some circumstances leading up to the death. This talk may last about 5 or 10 minutes but is therapeutic and can help her reframe the past and the inevitable in a more positive light. Now I find myself seeking out those who have recently lost a loved one and have had bonding conversations that I never thought possible before.
You may have heard this warning before but I will mention that it is a good idea NOT to say “it was for the best,” “I’m glad your grandmother is no longer suffering,” or something like that. Your friend might say those things, but you should not.
Flowers are a great way to express condolences and are appropriate for those with whom you have a longstanding relationship. Consider sending flowers in a vase rather than a traditional stand so that they will be appropriate for any type of service.
Make a Gift in the Person’s Name
Make a donation to a charity designated by the family, rather than send flowers. The charity should let your friend (or her family) know that a gift has been made by you in the deceased’s name. Because there can be several weeks between the death and the notification of the gift, you may also want to express sympathy in other ways to show support of your friend in the meantime.
You don't have to do all of these things to express condolences. Most people choose one.
What ways have you found appropriate to express condolences? Share them in the comments.
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