Sincere Condolences

When death strikes, love means having to say you’re sorry

“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”

– William Shakespeare


Americans Are Awkward When Faced With Bereavement

When Shakespeare wrote those lines in the 16th century, grief over the loss of a loved one was a common occurrence. Death, in the form of plague, war and other ills, rarely took a holiday. The Bard saw that giving voice to sorrow was necessary for both the bereaved and the people around them, and far preferable to repressing one’s feelings and keeping a stiff Elizabethan upper lip.

In the US, where youth is eternal, many people are not prepared for the eventuality of death. Even the tragedy of September 11 has not made us more ready to acknowledge this ultimate fact of life.

Eventually, we will all have reason to mourn the passing of friends, family and loved ones but despite tragedies large and small, we still have a problem voicing our sympathy. Perhaps it’s our puritan heritage, a fear of causing more pain, or simply our lack of experience in dealing with death. We don’t know what to say and so, embarrassed and awkward, we say nothing.


Recall Happier Times

Expressing sympathy verbally can be difficult but if you are at a wake, funeral, or memorial service, you will need to speak to the bereaved. Be brief and be sincere. Try to recall good times or a special day. If some of the family doesn’t know you, say something that puts your relationship with the deceased in context.

“I always remember those weekends we spent with your family at the Shore. Your Dad was great on the grill.”

“Your brother and I worked in the same department at Merrill. He was a wonderful man and greatly respected by all of us.

“Your Mom was my fifth grade teacher and I still remember her English classes – she made me love literature.”


A Prayer Is an Act of Love

“I will call you next week to see what you need help with.” Then be sure that you do. People can be overwhelmed with messages and visitors at first but alone and depressed after just a week or two.

“I’ll say a prayer for you and for Bill.” This is acceptable in most cases regardless of religion. A prayer is an act of love. Just don’t indulge in very intense or loud prayers or religious discussions that may be upsetting to some.

Do NOT say things like:

“It’s God’s will” and “God took her.” This may not be comforting.

Don’t make comments about the appearance of the deceased if the coffin is open. If the person really looked “natural” they would be alive. If pressed, say something like “I remember that was one of her favorite dresses” or “Blue was her favorite color.”

Don’t ask for the details about how the person died. This is a very painful subject and there may be aspects of the death that the family does not want known.


No Comment, Please

Never speak ill of the dead. Not only is it unkind and very tacky, cutting remarks may find their way back to the bereaved. Nor should you make any kind of negative comment about the service or what follows. People mourn in different ways. My brother died in his 30s and our Irish American family was criticized for the big bash that followed his burial. More than 300 people attended and there was much drinking, singing and recitation of poetry. It was, as the Irish say, Grand, and my brother would have loved it. But a few people found it disrespectful and said so.

If you cannot go to the visitation or funeral, stop by the funeral home and sign the book with a short personal note. That lets the family know that you care.

In the Internet Age, we have the opportunity to send our sympathy via e-mail or post a message on a memorial site set up for the deceased. Etiquette experts agree that while an e-mail message is acceptable, a tangible card or personal letter is more memorable.

If sending a letter, you might include a photo of the deceased or something they had written. When my brother died, a high school classmate sent copies of columns my brother had written for the school paper. A Pan Am colleague passed away recently, and I found a snapshot of the two of us on a layover and sent it to her daughter. I explained that when the photo was taken, her mother was pregnant with her and trying valiantly to hide it. It was 1972, and pregnant stewardesses were instantly dismissed!


A Website Is Forever

Online memorial sites are increasingly popular and a quick Google search will reveal an array of sites and options. The sites are, in fact, a kind of social media along the lines of Facebook or MySpace, that allow you to create a memorial to a loved one, quickly and cheaply.

The memorial can contain photos, videos, audio clips, music a biography, and highlights of the person’s life as well as background on the rest of the family. Copies of the funeral service program, prayers, hymns and eulogies can also be included. Friends and family members can post their own photos, recollections and offer messages of condolences. Many sites have a feature where you can light a virtual candle in memory of the deceased.

Many of these sites offer pages for pet memorials. As any animal lover can attest, the death of a pet can be just as devastating as the loss of a friend or family member. Now there are sympathy cards designed just for this purpose and when my beloved cat, Thatcher died, I received several, as well as e-mails and calls. It was comforting to know how many people realized that this too, was a significant loss.

In an age when friends and families may be living far away, an Internet memorial can unite people and give them an opportunity to pay their respects online if not in person. And, while newspaper clippings fade, ashes scatter and headstones crumble, the Internet is forever, providing a permanent, accessible record of individuals and families.

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