Expressing sympathy for those who have just lost a loved one seems to challenge most of us at one time or another. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind the next time you find yourself searching for the right words.
It was a funeral several years ago that first awakened my interest in etiquette. A close friend’s mother died, and I found myself at a loss for words. Eager to show my support appropriately, I cracked open a borrowed, tattered copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette and read what it had to say about consideration for bereaved friends. I ended up hunkering down and reading the whole book over the next couple of weeks, fascinated and newly aware of all the ways that etiquette touches daily routines as well as life-changing events.
Expressing sympathy for those who have just lost a loved one seems to challenge most of us at one time or another. Even people who are known to be well-spoken and confident in their speech can be utterly clumsy when it comes to condolences. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind the next time you find yourself searching for the right words.
Keep it simple.
Resist the urge to eulogize, or to say the “perfect” thing to exude comfort and reassurance. That’s not your job. Your job is to be there for your friend, so just saying the basics will suffice — “I’m so sorry,” “I love you, ” and “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do,” are good places to start.
Don’t be presumptuous or condescending.
Saying “Cheer up, she’s in a better place” or “You must be so relieved she’s no longer in pain” seems to be an attempt to brush off the bereaved person’s right to mourn. Saying “Oh I’m sure she would have wanted you to move on and have fun, so you should come to this party with me” is bossy and ridiculous. As Judith Martin writes, “Putting sentiments in the mouths of others is always offensive, but Miss Manners finds it particularly so in the case of those who are not around to speak for themselves.”
Keep the focus on the bereaved, not on yourself.
Going into details about your experience with this death is not appropriate. Don’t start sentences that keep the attention on your noble grief, like “Oh, when I heard, I was sooo distraught,” or “I was so shocked to hear about it, I just couldn’t believe it!” Sharing a short, happy memory about the deceased is wonderful, but don’t deliver a sermon canonizing him or her. Often people launch into long personal stories, as if to prove how well they knew them, or to somehow legitimize their presence at the funeral. Your bereaved friend is 100% aware of what a great loss this is, and why it’s a great loss — he probably can’t get these thoughts of his head, actually. Don’t make it even harder for him to get through his day.
Avoid bombarding them with questions.
The last thing a bereaved person needs is to be expected to have everything “all figured out” so that she can answer a million questions. Never say things like “Did he go peacefully?” or “What will you do, now that Bob’s gone?” or “Have you thought of selling the house?” Your friend does not need to be cross-examined with painful questions, and she can decide when to start thinking about these questions for herself. Even “How are you holding up?” is a trick question. She doesn’t want to answer “Pretty good” for fear of seeming like she’s not sad enough or something, and she doesn’t want to answer “Awful, this SUCKS and I’ve been crying for 16 hours in a row” for fear of being dramatic. Don’t put her on the spot by even asking this question.
Really, it’s OKAY to smile when offering condolences. This is not the time to yuk it up heartily (maybe later, over beers, and reminiscences if the bereaved person wishes), but you also shouldn’t greet your friend with a stony face. I think a lot of people want to make sure they seem sufficiently sad, so they try hard not to smile even in conversations where a smile would be appropriate. This bereaved friend probably really needs to see her friends’ smiles and feel their warmth and eagerness to help. So if you are happy to see her, as you likely always are, give her a smile — even if it’s through tears.
All this being said, I think one of the reasons why this topic interests me particularly is because I’ve never lost a super close friend or an immediate family member. I would love to hear some more ideas from those of you who have. What did someone say that really brightened your day? What did someone say that ruined it? Comment away.
Have an etiquette question and need some advice? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.