Sage: The art of condolences

Dear Sage:


Three weeks ago, my wife of 44 years passed away suddenly after a heart attack. I have received all manner of condolences, and in every imaginable form, many of them beautiful. But a couple had some pretty rough edges. “Damn, what a kick in the family jewels, Bob!” wrote one acquaintance in a card. “Look on the bright side – no more trips to the mall!” The kicker came when I received an email showing a cartoon of a shapely bathing beauty drinking a martini on the beach. With it a neighbor in my retirement community had written: “I got a female friend who’s always liked you and who I hear is terrific in many ways, wink, wink. Call me and I’ll give you her number!” Honestly, Mr. Sage, you’d think that people could just send a card, sign their name, and let it go at that – a nice thought and a show of concern. Period. I feel lucky to have received many tender words of shared sadness. But these other two kind of bothered me. Perhaps you might expound on the etiquette of condolences?


                                                              – Widower in Wichita


Dear Widower:


   First of all, the Sage would like to extend sincere condolences to you and your family for your loss. People often get tongue-tied or say idiotic things when they get nervous about expressing sympathy. Emily Post has been widely quoted as saying, “A letter of condolence may be abrupt, badly constructed, ungrammatical — never mind. Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.” So please keep that in mind as you reflect on these gaffes. Eventually, as you get through the grieving process and begin to see humor in more places, you may embrace these raw and memorable expressions of emotions as well-meaning, albeit laughingly inappropriate.

   In terms of the benefits of positive and redeeming expressions of condolences, Hallmark tell us, ‘Our words can’t take away the pain of losing a loved one, but they can go a long way toward helping a grieving person feel loved and supported.”

   Today, the protocol for such expressions has grown more complicated.

   “As Facebooking, Snapchatting or simply ignoring friends has become fashionable, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddied at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. ‘Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn,’” wrote Bruce Feller, a weekly columnist for the New York Times.

   Emily Post says that it’s fine to email condolences if that is your usual form of correspondence with someone – ‘it’s an immediate and non-intrusive way to let him know you are thinking of him. Follow an emailed message with a handwritten note.’ Feller adds that it is OK to post a condolence on Facebook, but ‘Even heartfelt gestures like these do not replace a condolence note.’

   The Sage would interject here that a few simple words will more than suffice. You don’t need to add a sad face, crying face, hearts, thumbs down, face blowing a kiss, face with raised eyebrow, pouting face, or cross-eyed yuk face. Cartoony emoji, while culturally acceptable in many situations, are not proper when it comes to death – they risk come across as trivializing someone’s loss.

   And, of course, you never want to be offensive or negative by saying such ridiculous things as, ‘Boy, that was a hell of a funeral for George – a whole choir and a long mass and a religious eulogy. Made him sound like a saint! When was the last time he set foot in a church?!” … or “Hoping that you find comfort soon now that Jim’s gone. Lord knows he didn’t give you any!” No, we don’t want to go there. Ever.

    People treasure sincere and appropriate sympathy notes and keep them forever as symbols of a life that truly mattered, lived by someone who made others feel blessed and special. Survivors often discover things about the deceased that they did not know – how he or she mentored co-workers, or saved someone’s job, or was respected as the company’s voice of reason and paragon of principled behavior, or rescued a fellow soldier during a battle, or stood up to a bully on behalf of a classmate in elementary school.

   And sometimes they will hear funny and uplifting stories: the deceased becoming the designated driver for a friend after college finals, the vehicle being a wheelbarrow pushed back to the dorm after an evening of debauchery … a story from a childhood friend who reports that your father was the Romeo among the 3-year-olds in preschool and kept getting put in time out for kissing the girls … a recollection that your aunt drew the short straw for a blind date and ended up having to go out with your uncle.

   We are truly lucky to hear warm remembrances – collectively they paint a fuller picture of an individual and help us grieve in a way that our relative or friend would want us to grieve – with fond memories, humor, love and appreciation. They become priceless mementos that we can revisit on the inevitable sad days that we all experience until our mind’s eye sees the person in days of joy and robust health rather than during the final and sad days of life. Knowing that a loved one touched so many lives makes us feel even luckier.

   Emily Post suggests that when you write a note, ‘Say what you truly feel. A single sincere line expressing the genuine feeling you had … is all you need to write.” She suggests that we not dwell on illness or manner of death. She and others suggest that we extend offers of help – specific ones, such as doing errands, shopping or simply bringing food.

   Hallmark recommends that notes not say, ‘I know how you feel,’ or ‘this was a blessing,’ or ‘this happened for a reason.’

   ‘If you’re not sure what to say, keep it brief:

   “We are so sorry for your loss” … “I’m going to miss her, too” … “Sharing in your sadness as you remember Fred” … “Remembering your wonderful mother and her remarkable life. I feel so lucky that I knew her” … “What a good and generous man your father was.”

   If you’re stuck on adjectives to describe the deceased, Hallmark also suggests considering the use of such words as: kindhearted, talented, admired, funny, wonderful, well-loved, lovely, sweet, generous, one of a kind, honorable, respected, caring, hardworking, strong, energetic, happy.

   As for Mr. Widower in Wichita, at the time you received those two notes from your acquaintances, you may have used different words to describe them:  knuckleheads, chumps, nincompoops, numskulls, oafs and halfwits -- to start.  But then again, without guidance we all risk coming off as rank amateurs, and the words that pour out may seem like they came from fraternity brothers who couldn’t think clearly through a wicked hangover from a 10-day bender.

   Please try to keep your sense of humor, treasure the beautiful condolences, and consider spending an hour or two at the mall in honor of your wife. If it was her happy place, maybe the memories will put a smile on your face.


   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage