Death is not common in western society the way it used to be. Infant mortality is relatively low, we have penicillin, and people die in hospitals, not at home. For many, this means that death is a rare occasion in their lives, which is a relief. But the flip side is that familiarity with death means an understanding of how to talk about it or offer sincere condolences. I still clam up when a friend loses someone close to them, unsure of quite how to offer support at a time when most people probably don’t know what they need. But here are a few things to think about when offering condolences.
1. Should I offer condolences?
In most instances, yes, you should, whether you’re the griever’s best friend, boss, or doorman. And if the griever brings it up first, you always should, even if you don’t know them very well.
2. When should I offer condolences?
If the griever tells you, immediately. If you hear it through another party (for instance, if your friend’s husband lets you know her aunt just died, because she’s not in any mood to be calling people), use your discretion based on your relationship. If it’s your best friend then obviously say something soon, but if you’re not as close, maybe give it a day or two, when it would make sense that news had gotten out.
3. How do I offer condolences?
If you can’t do it in person, I actually think text or email is much, much better than a phone call in most instances. When one’s grieving, the last thing most people want to do is get on the phone and interact with someone else, for multiple reasons. They may be making funeral arrangements, and don’t want to take time out of planning to hop on the phone with every relative or friend. They may need time alone, and don’t want to have to talk to anyone. Also these phone calls can quickly turn into the griever comforting those calling, explaining “no really, I’m ok, don’t worry” when they just want to grieve in peace.
An email or text on the other hand lets them know you’re there, but requires no response or effort from the griever (note: do not expect replies for these).
4. What should I say?
If you met the deceased, it’s always lovely to include a word or fond memory about them. If not, focus on the griever. You may say “I know how much he/she meant to you,” but a simple “I’m sorry for your loss” always works. This is also a good time to offer any services with something like “if there’s anything you need, please let me know.” If you’re closer, you can offer something specific, like house-sitting if they need to travel.
“I’m sorry for your loss” doesn’t sound like much. Often times I think I’m being too generic or uncaring when I send that message to a friend, but then I remember just how comforted I was with the flood of messages just like that the last time someone close to me died.
Tell us, what have you found comforting when a close one has died? What did people do that frustrated you?