Expressing Condolences
Two ladies having coffee

Expressing Condolences

Expressing Condolences in Person

When we express sympathy to someone who is grieving, we – the non-grieving persons – hold power in the conversation. We are feeling sorry, or sad, for someone else. We control the conversation, including its duration, by reciting the scripts that we have learned. The griever has relatively little agency in conversations of sympathy, because they are similarly well-trained in social scripts. If we close a brief expression of sympathy with the common line, “let me know if there is anything that I can do to help,” we already know that it is unlikely that the griever will pick up the phone to ask us for help, precisely because the grieving person already recognizes the offer as part of a script.

Conversely, when we extend expressions of empathy to someone who is grieving, it is the griever who holds power and control of the conversation. We resist using social scripts and instead speak honestly and from the heart, while keeping the griever – not ourselves – at the center of all communication. Instead of feeling for someone, we strive to feel with a loved one in their grief. As reflected in the opening quote by groundbreaking educator and philosopher Nel Noddings, in her writing on the ethics of care, we become a “duality,” maintaining our selfhood as a support but simultaneously seeing and feeling with someone who is suffering. Rather than being preoccupied with ourselves or how we believe that would feel in the griever’s situation, we work to understand what they are feeling so we can best support them. Instead of imposing ourselves onto the other, we receive the other into ourselves.

Benefits of Empathic Communication

The benefits of receiving empathy can be far more meaningful and long-lasting than hearing only expressions of sympathy in times of suffering or grief. Whereas sympathy is often communicated quickly and via pre-packaged, culturally-prescribed sentences and phrases, empathy requires self-direction and originality in verbally demonstrating support. Grievers recognize the difference, which then signals to the griever that they can trust someone as a member of their support system and call upon them as a trusted listener in the future. During the period of shock, disorientation, or helplessness that may occur following a loss, grievers may also feel powerless. Receiving empathic communication restores to the griever some measure of power and agency, allowing them to be the center of conversations, not only about their deceased but also and importantly, about themselves.

Empathic communication also benefits those who are practicing it as a means of supporting grievers. Feeling with someone allows us to recognize differences between our own attitudes, values, and beliefs and those held by others without rushing to judgment, which in turn expands our emotional intelligence and better equips us to face losses in our own lives and be of future support to others. Moreover, empathy reinforces and strengthens interpersonal bonds in ways that have lasting effects long after the hardest weeks and months of grief have concluded. Developing empathic communication skills may be a lifelong and imperfect process for most of us. It requires more attention, patience, emotional labor, and open-mindedness than sympathy ever demands, but the effects of practicing empathy are invaluably beneficial, both to our loved ones and to ourselves.

Helpful Versus Harmful Strategies in Demonstrating Care

It can be difficult to identify specific steps to follow in order to employ empathy in communications with grievers. This is tricky because it is important that we not simply replace sympathy scripts with “empathy scripts.” However, when we consider which communication practices are most beneficial to grievers versus those that provide little help – or even do unintentional harm – we may begin to identify which strategies can help us in demonstrating empathy.

The following points of consideration are intended to serve as a starting place in self-evaluating our common practices in supporting grievers verbally. There is no “rulebook of empathy,” but each of these strategies is included because of its potential in restoring power to the griever and to benefit them through expressions of empathy.

Instead of ... coming into the conversation with a personal agenda
Consider ... keeping the direction of the conversation at the discretion of the griever

Instead of ... using many “I” statements, such as “I am so sorry,” “I was shocked to learn of his death,” “I couldn’t believe it”
Consider ... employing “you” statements and questions, such as “Do you want to talk about how you’re feeling?” or “You were so important to her.”

Instead of... making assumptions about the loss and its impact on a survivor by saying “you must be feeling so…” or “normally, people feel…
Consider... asking specific questions about how the survivor is feeling and what this loss has meant to them

Instead of... leading the griever toward your expectations about their emotions and choices in memorialization
Consider... validating all communicated emotional responses as well as the griever’s choices in memorialization and bereavement to reinforce that there is no “normal” selection of choices that they “should” follow

Instead of... imposing personal attitudes, values, or beliefs or assuming that you understand those held by the griever
Consider... asking about and being receptive to the griever’s communicated attitudes, values, and beliefs surrounding the loss, which may be altered due to grief

Instead of... providing unsolicited advice or trying to guide someone through their grief
Consider... meeting the griever where they are in their own unique pathway of grief

Instead of... identifying with the griever’s situation by sharing one of your own stories of loss
Consider ... keeping the griever’s loss at the center of the conversation in recognition that they have the right to own their unique story of loss

Instead of... limiting the griever by saying, “I know how you feel”
Consider... telling the griever that you would like to understand how they are feeling

Instead of... shutting down the griever by saying, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through”
Consider... expressing that you want to understand what they are going and ask open-ended questions about how they are coping

Instead of... using disenfranchising terms and phrases developed around causes of death such as committed suicide, killed oneself, lost their battle, overdosed, or couldn’t overcome demons
Consider... employing non-judgmental language such as “died of suicide” or “died of complications of addiction” and mirroring the language used by the griever

Instead of... communicating “silver lining” or “at least” statements such as “at least they didn’t suffer” or “well, she lived a long life”
Consider... articulating that you understand that no matter the circumstances of death, the griever is experiencing a profound loss and has the right to grieve

The most effective conversations that communicate empathy are those that occur one on one, in settings where you can:

  • Practice attuned listening without distractions
  • Listen more than I talk
  • Maintain centered and open body language
  • Keep eye contact
  • Allow for spaces of silence as needed by the griever
  • Ask questions about the relationship, the griever’s feelings and anxieties, and ways in which I can help

Ultimately, empathy is something we build as well as something we do. No one is perfect in attaining universal empathy; we work at it in order to apply it. Over time, continually developing empathy can expand our thinking about human differences as well as help immeasurably those in our lives who are struggling, suffering, or grieving. Developing empathy is an ongoing process, just as effectively communicating empathy is a process. As you reflect on the benefits and strategies of communicating empathy to those who are grieving, remember not to hold yourself to impossible standards because, like grief itself, practicing empathy is a unique process for each of us – and that we who strive to practice it are equally deserving of receiving empathy, too.

Adapted from the blog post Practicing and Communicating Empathy to Support Grievers by Dr. Sara Murphy.

Writing a Letter of Condolence

We live in a digital world - one that enables us to connect with family and friends around the world quickly and easily. The ability to do so gives us the additional opportunities to interact in meaningful ways, which is perhaps never more important than while grieving a death of a loved one. Technology can bring us together in wonderful ways. It can, however, also come at a cost.

In our fast-paced, digitally focused world, it has become increasingly common for a death to be announced on social media and for followers to respond with “Thinking of you,” “Thoughts and prayers,” or “So sorry for your loss.” While these responses are well-intentioned, they lack the depth and personal connection that is helpful to someone who is grieving a loss.

A letter or note of condolence, as an alternative, provides you with the opportunity to thoughtfully reflect on the loss experienced by your friend or family member, express sincere empathy, and offer support. Writing a condolence letter isn’t something most of us do often. Use these guidelines to get started.

Your letter can be written on stationary, or in a simple notecard or sympathy card.

  • Acknowledge the loss, using the name of the individual who has died and their relationship to the griever.
  • Express sympathy and care.
  • Share a favorite memory of the deceased or something you know about the deceased’s relationship with your friend or family member. If appropriate, share a favorite story or anecdote.
  • Describe the individual’s most memorable attributes and any influence they had on how you live your own life.
  • Offer support if you’re in a position to do so and will follow are confident you will be able to follow through. Be specific and offer options:

    I’d like to bring over a meal. I’ll call you in a few days to find out the best time to do so.
    We’d like to help you with yard or other maintenance this summer. I will call you in a few days to find out how we can best help.
    Is that alright with you?
  • Acknowledge their grief and that you understand grieving takes time and is different for everyone. Indicate that you will follow up with the bereaved in the weeks and months ahead and invite them to reach out to you as well. In doing so, you establish yourself as a willing member of their grief support team.
  • Close with a message of support or a thoughtful sentiment or quote.
  • Avoid using religious or faith-based references unless you are confident such references would be welcomed and appreciated. Remember that even if you are familiar with another person’s spiritual beliefs, loss can complicate those beliefs and those sentiments might not be helpful.
  • Phrases and euphemisms such as “He’s in a better place,” “It’s for the best,” “We’re never given more than we can bear,” “Everything happens for a reason,” should be avoided. These types of phrases, while well-intentioned, could be offensive to the recipient who may not feel comforted by these stock phrases while coming to terms with their loss.

Using Social Media Purposefully

When someone we care about has experienced a death loss, many of us will send a condolence card or letter, pick up the phone to extend direct sympathy, or stop by with flowers or food. However, it is more common than ever to learn about a loss via social media and therefore use these platform to express our initial condolences. Social media, including memorialization websites, can be invaluable in remaining in touch with grieving loved ones who are separated by us through distance; at the same time, using these platforms to express grief support can also feel like stepping carefully through a minefield.

People who are grieving or want to support others who are grieving often feel:

  1. Overwhelmed by the number of impersonal and nearly-identical responses they received to social media posts on their deceased loved one;
  2. Anger at having learned that a loved one died by reading about it on social media before they could be contacted directly;
  3. Confused as to the “dos and don’ts” of supporting grievers in the digital age.

The following guidelines can help you use social media thoughtfully and purposefully.

Memorialization Pages

Memorialization pages are a unique opportunity for grievers to continue bonds with their loved ones digitally and over time. When posting to a memorialization page, or to a death notification post, include specific memories of the deceased or memories that the griever shared with you about them that you found touching, memorable, or funny. Consider also referencing qualities the griever admired in their loved one that you believe they share with them or inherited from them. Grievers will often reread these posts when feeling particularly lonely in their loss; using specific detail will offer comfort that their loved one’s legacy is shared, even by those who did not know them well.

Anniversaries, birthdays, and other memorable dates will often prompt survivors to post to memorialization pages – we know that grief is ongoing and that we do not “get over it,” so posting messages of support on these dates can also help the person you care about continue to “get through it.”

Post Thoughtfully and With Care

One of the greatest cultural losses to living in a digital age is the amount of time we allow ourselves in which to reflect and respond to one another on a daily basis. We are so accustomed to rapid response and the expectation of scrolling quickly through a timeline or newsfeed that we may not always choose our words carefully.

When posting, consider others’ feelings as you reflectively write. Remember that you are not writing into a vacuum and that these sites are public spaces; the readership and audience of your words are much wider than simply the person or people you wish to support. Speculation or questions about the way in which someone died, singling out someone as grieving more or less than another survivor, or accidentally sharing information about the deceased’s life that might not be known to everyone can cause long-term harm for someone who is using social media to share news of a death and to attain support.

Avoid Employing Empty Language

While posting online, resist language that may be harmful or might unconsciously disenfranchise grievers, including clichés and “at least” statements. Examples: “We’re never given more than we can handle,” “Everything happens for a reason,” “At least they did not suffer long,” “At least you had so much time with them.” These statements, while well-intentioned, signal to the griever that they should not be feeling the emotional responses that they are feeling genuinely and deeply. Rather, these phrases “police” grief.

Similarly, avoid socially-prescribed “grief scripts” such as “Sorry for your loss” and “Let me know if I can do anything to help” and try not to lean on emojis to communicate your emotional support. In short, choose your words carefully and with intention. If you wish to offer specific support, such as dropping off food or running errands, consider a means other than a public post in which to offer it. 

Keep Your Online Responses Focused

Remember the purposes of posting a death notification to social media – to inform the community that a death has occurred, to affirm the loss and the grievers’ bonds with the deceased, and to seek and attain support. Responses to a social media death notification should remain wholly focused on meeting those needs – by acknowledging the loss that has occurred, by bearing witness to the grief experienced by survivors, and by communicating care and support. Reread your words before posting to ensure that you are not unintentionally hijacking another person’s grief post as a means to share unrelated comments, discuss personal opinions, engage in speculation about the circumstances of the death, or make comparisons to your own losses.

Extend Support Beyond Social Media Platforms

Now more than ever, it is important that social media not be the beginning and endpoint of how we support those who are grieving a death loss. While posting a response to a death notification online might be the first step we take in showing support, it should not be the last. Calling someone who is grieving can alleviate isolation and loneliness. Sending a card with a handwritten, personalized note can provide comfort as well as a keepsake for the griever to hold onto. Making plans to meet and to participate in memorialization rituals when it is safe to do so reminds grievers that their loved one’s death is not being overlooked or forgotten in the midst of national turmoil. 

Don’t Share News of a Death Online Without Permission

Finally and importantly, do not post about a death or share an online death notification without explicit permission from the primary grievers or immediate family members. Death notifications should only be shared online with the permission of the author and only then when all the closest survivors have been notified through better means. The shock and trauma of learning about a close family member’s death through social media can be immeasurable.

Social media has been labeled both revolutionary and reckless, but all agree that it is here to stay. It is important that we utilize these platforms with purpose when first responding to the news of someone’s loss, but it is even more valuable that we maintain the personalized care that is most needed when experiencing grief, both within and beyond social networking platforms. Through this pandemic and into our uncertain future, it is most crucial that we practice the compassion, empathy, and support that benefit anyone and everyone in troubled times – and no one more so than those who are suffering as the result of the death of a loved one.

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