Condolence messages sent with sincerity are not meant to hurt or remind the bereaved of sad times, but sometimes, a well-intentioned condolence message does just that. When writing a condolence message, it’s hard to know what to say and what not to say. How can you truly know what someone is going through at this sad time? How can you truly know what to say that will comfort them?
A Personal Story of a Hurtful Condolence Message
My young cousin sat on the age of her bed sobbing her eyes out. Our grandfather had just died and we were all going through a mixture of raw emotions. We had already shed a river of tears over the preceding couple of days, but this time the crying was different. These tears weren’t fuelled by sadness; rather they came from anger and disbelief. “How could they say that?” she cried.
The saddest part of watching this beautiful young girl sobbing uncontrollably was, knowing the reason she was so upset. She had been relatively fine considering the circumstances, slowly coming to terms with our loss. Until she had read the letter she still held in her hands. A condolence message sent from a friend. “How could they?” she said, looking at me with her red, confounded eyes.
Unintentionally Upsetting the Bereaved
The friend who had sent the letter had no intention of upsetting my young cousin. In fact, they thought they were being sympathetic and somewhat helpful. They had unintentionally mentioned a previous disagreement my cousin had had with my grandfather. A disagreement that, at this time, she was feeling exceptionally guilty about. The friend’s intention was to alleviate her guilt, but she had only compounded it. Best if it had been left unsaid.
It’s so difficult to determine what any individual may be going through during the grieving process. Grief is so unique, and different people will handle it in different ways. Someone whom you thought would be a pillar of strength may be reduced to being completely helpless, and vice versa. The emotions can be so volatile at this time that what is said and not said must be carefully considered.
Put Yourself in the Bereaved Person’s Position
Though it may be hard to imagine and a bit distasteful, try to put yourself in the grieving person’s position. Would you want to be reminded of how your loved one died? I think we both know the answer to that question. But, it has been done, and only because of the awkwardness of the situation. People often stumble over what to say in a condolence letter simply from having no familiarity with it. Everyone experiences death at some point in their life, and the first time is no doubt the most difficult.
Some Basic Things to Avoid in a Condolence Message:
• Raising issues you or the bereaved may have had with the deceased
• Comparing their loss with some problem you may be having or difficulty you may be going through
• Offering advice on how to handle their grief. Especially if you have no experience.
• Minimize their loss through the use of cliches such as, “time heals” or “you’ll get over it”.
• Never, ever raise the issue of money owed – by or to either party.
• Don’t apologize or make excuses for not being as good a friend or relative or neighbour as you could have. Reserve this for a more appropriate time in the future.
Keep It Simple and Sensitive
A basic rule of what to say when writing a condolence message is the KISS principle. Keep It Simple and Sensitive. Do say that you’re sorry for their loss, and do say something positive about the deceased. Mention their strengths of character, good deeds or work they may have done. Share a fond or funny memory of the person that you recall. These sorts of things can be very comforting to those who are grieving, and help to alleviate the pain of their loss.
It is also appropriate to offer support at this time, whether it be emotional, or providing some help with cooking, transport or children if they are involved. Never offer financial assistance at this time! On signing off, simply express your heartfelt condolences. Phrases such as “With Deepest Sympathy”, or “Our Loving Thoughts” are both suitable and soothing in a condolence message.