Every now and then I see books with titles like “How to Express Yourself in Letters” or “The Right Words for the Right Occasion” and so on. Here are a few of my own thoughts on contacting people who grieve. Your mileage may vary and your opinions may directly contradict mine. That’s OK. We’re all different.
I don’t think there are any miracle words that express exactly what you want to say, but don’t overlook the fact that there are many who grieve who will understand what you are trying to say. “I am sorry for your loss” is simple and means a lot. Honestly.
Another version: “I don’t know what to say but I love you and I will help you in any way that I can. Phone me if you need help and I will phone you, too.” And carry through with this. Do phone your friend or relative or colleague later on. They don’t have “bad luck germs” – you’re not going to catch it from them. On the other hand, your concern could give a boost to someone who needs it.
In Australia, people often send a store-bought sympathy card. These are fine. When you can’t find the words, sometimes a card can say what you’re struggling to find.
You don’t have to send flowers. You don’t have to bring over food parcels. And please do not be offended if the mourner politely declines your offer of bringing over various dishes. She or he may have a refrigerator or freezer that is at capacity, or may have allergies or intolerances that may be hard for others to cook for. Declining offers of help is not intended as a slight or an insult.
Be careful when you quote Scripture. Not every mourner subscribes to your variety of religion, and unless the words you use are those which are common to standard rites, they may come as a shock or be taken badly. Some brought comfort to me. However, I’m trying to decipher one letter I received. Even with a combined Non-Conformist and Anglican background, I’m still confused.
If your friend or relative normally has a dark or dry sense of humour, please don’t expect them to (a) behave like normal and start cracking jokes about the deceased or (b) to have their sense of humour surgically removed at the time of death of their loved one. People are different (worth repeating) and respond in their own way and their own time.
Why would I include this? Because I have been judged and found wanting as a widow (at one point, I was going up for the Bad Widow Award, apparently) because the humour that my darling husband and I shared was still there, and I do occasionally say the darndest things. One example was after I found that he hadn’t taken out travel insurance and I was trying to get refunds on umpteen flights and hotel bookings, and I muttered to a friend “If he weren’t dead already, I’d kill him.” Fortunately my friend who overheard me is as crazy as I am and was probably thinking along the same lines.
Don’t expect an immediate thank you or any type of response from your condolences. Seriously, at some points any effort to thank can be draining, especially when in conjunction with planning a funeral or memorial, being the executor of a will, juggling bank accounts, searching for paperwork, and in some cases, having to keep the fires burning at work, too. Sending thanks to those who have shown their concern will happen later when the mourner has time to catch up. This isn’t like writing thank you notes for wedding gifts. (OK, someone is going to tell me that Dear Abby or whoever has said to the contrary. I will be equally contrary but with a heap of sass and say that they can bite themselves.)
Last point for this evening: don’t forget your grieving friends or relatives, and don’t forget the person who they miss dearly. In most cases, it’s OK to mention the one who died. That person’s grandfather, baby, or friend was very important to your friend or relative. Honour their memory, and honour your friend.