Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Maternity Leave Guest Post: How to Offer Sincere Condolences

Photo by: Muffet

By Adinda E.E. Delporte

Death and sadness are as closely connected to life as birth and happiness, yet people generally tend to avoid talking or thinking about these subjects. With reason, I suppose, because filling your life and mind with sad thoughts doesn’t exactly evoke happiness. Yet from time to time, we have no choice but to acknowledge death and grief and think about how we deal with it; how we help others deal with it. In recent years, I have lost two uncles and one great-uncle and while I was definitely shaken by their deaths, these were in no way my dearest loved ones. Their deaths touched me, but what mainly affected me was the grief of their loved ones, rather than my own. I felt a great urge to comfort the living rather than grieve the dead, and offering support really did make an impact.

But how does one do that, offering support to someone in mourning? When my first uncle died, I was barely 20 and studying for my bachelor’s degree. I was unable to attend my uncle’s funeral because I had mandatory college practicums and absence was only permitted for the funeral of a (grand)parent, child or sibling. I did offer my aunt my -rather standard- condolences and made sure she was aware that I really cared about her loss and I regularly inquired about her well-being.

When my great-uncle died, I was 22, I had moved abroad and I was working a full time job. Even though his decease wasn’t unexpected, I was hit quite hard. My great-uncle was my grandfather’s brother and he married my grandmother’s sister, making family relations a bit tighter, and he and his family lived only two houses away from my grandparents’ family for most of their lives, which led to both families blending very closely together. Since both my grandfathers had died before I was born, my great-uncle sort of filled that role for me. I booked a train to go back to Belgium for his funeral a week later, but I didn’t want to wait until then to console my great-aunt. I decided against calling, because I knew she would be mainly with her children and her siblings, I’m not very good on the phone and her hearing is not 100% either.

I decided I would write her a heartfelt letter in a beautiful, serene card, and I posted it the same night, at half past ten, lucky to have international priority stamps in the house. I figured that words on paper would reach both her and her children, and she would be able to revisit the card whenever she felt like it. Also, she wouldn’t have to keep a strong face for me, show that she’s coping, she could really let her feelings be. I’m making this sound like a very conscious process, but it was more of an impulse really, and I am ever so happy that I acted on that impulse. It’s been two years since my great-uncle died, and every single time I have spoken to my great-aunt since, she tells me again how much those words have meant to her, that even now, she still regularly reads back what I wrote and that she and her children have drawn so much support from it. I did put a lot of thoughts in those words, but writing that letter took no more than two hours. Seeing how much of a response that has caused, how important this has been to my grieving relatives, has really moved me to keep this up, and to spread awareness.

A year ago, I received the notice that an uncle on my father’s side of the family died. My brothers and I are estranged from that side of the family since my parents divorced, and even before that, contact had been rather scarce, but still, I felt that a connection was severed and that now, I would never have the chance anymore to reacquaint myself with my uncle, who was still in his early sixties. I did have fond memories of the man, and I felt very much for my aunt and cousins, despite not having contact for at least six years. Again, I took up pen and paper, because I wanted to offer my estranged aunt some of the comfort I had given my great-aunt. Again, I formed a connection, and again I got a strong response.

What I believe is important when offering condolences, is first and foremost, to actually offer them! Even if you’re not very close to somebody, every single offer of sympathy will be appreciated. If you have given your sympathy face to face, try to also follow up on paper. In the first days and weeks, there is a lot of attention for the people dealing with the loss, but it dies down quickly as others pick up their lives again. A card doesn’t stop coming for coffee, the people in mourning can easily return to all those kind words if they’re in need of support.

You want to make it meaningful though, so forget about all the standard formulations. They’re better than silence, but after how many iterations of “We were shocked to hear about Mr. X’s departure from this world and would like to offer our sincerest condolences to you and your family. You have our full sympathy in these hard times. Please know that we are thinking of you. May you find solace in each other.” do those words start to sound hollow? If you are unsure of how to convey your sympathy differently, don’t hesitate to use these formulations, because really, every single offer of support does make an impact. But if you want to go beyond, maybe how I go about this could help you too.

As in “the standard”, I will usually start with the fact that I was shocked/stunned/saddened by the news of their loved one dying. Then, I will describe my relationship to the deceased, accurately and honestly. I did not have strong ties to my estranged uncle, but I did feel a connection and I tried to really capture that. Describe the person they were to you, how they touched your life, in what way, however minor, they have been significant to you. Anything you might have learned from them. Try to capture the fragments of their personality that you discovered, describe as what kind of a person you saw them.

For my great-uncle, this was that every New Year’s celebration, he would buy a scratch card for every single person in our extended family of nearly 60 persons. He didn’t have a great fortune, but with what little he had, he would try to give every single one of us a great fortune. Every year, he had high hopes that one of us might win the jackpot and he wanted to give every single person that chance. He was a man that believed in sharing what you have, in family and in good fortune. That was who he was to me: my great-uncle who wanted the best for everyone and who would make an effort in his own style to help us along the way, against the odds, and a man who gave me the notion that the biggest fortune is not the money you can win, it’s the people that care about you, that believe in you and who wish only the best for you, and knowing that they feel that way. 
It’s a very valuable thing he gifted me. 

For my estranged uncle, I wrote about how to me, he was a man in the background who was around most of the times we visited my grandmother. A man whom I knew as a handyman who would fix leaking gutters and paint the shutters and mend the bikes, and mainly the man who nurtured and maintained my grandma's garden and vegetable patch. A simple man, who enjoyed simple things. I always saw him happiest when he’d wash garden soil off his hands and join us for an uncomplicated lunch. Boiled potatoes he had grown himself, fresh carrots he just harvested that morning, a piece of meat and a cool beer. That, to him, was a feast in itself, to eat what he had grown, to see us enjoying his harvest. He wasn’t one to get sentimental about it, our even talk very much about anything, but you could tell: that was what made him happy, that was what mattered to him. He taught me to appreciate simple things and inspired me to grow my own garden.

I write about how they have inspired me (and there is inspiration to be found in everybody!) and how I will honor their legacy. I bought a scratch card after my great uncle died, because well, I think he still would want people to take their chance and win their great fortune. I told my aunt how my first peas were nearly ripe for harvest, and that I would dedicate my first harvest to her husband, and I did. I cooked my first peas in his honor.

Then, I write something along the lines of “if they were just that to me, and I am already touched by their death in the way I am, I can but imagine how their death affects you, as they were so much more to you” and I will write about how I perceived the relationship between the person in mourning and their loved one. How I think that now, sadness will be the main feeling for them, but how I hope that they can find comfort with their loved ones, that they can find strength when they need it, and that over time, they will be able to think of their dearly departed with fondness and happy memories of the time they shared, rather than with sadness and regret for the time that was taken from them. If you are both religious people, or if you are religious and know the other party is comfortable with that, I suppose this would also be a good spot to tell them that they and their loved ones are in your prayers, or to include inspirational scripture. (Personal insight of an atheist: if I know somebody is religious, I would be honored that they're keeping us in their prayers, but scripture has the ability to put me off. If you don't know how somebody feels about religion, avoid making someone feel uncomfortable and leave it out of the equation all together. Death is delicate enough as it is.)

It’s quite simple really, but it makes a huge impact. All it takes is sincerity. People will know you most likely won’t miss any sleep because the driver of your daughter’s school bus died of a heart attack during his afternoon nap on a Sunday. They will know if the person never greatly altered your life, so don't fall into the temptation to assign this person more importance than they had. If you make your message personal and sincere, people can tell, and it will help them. So yes, if all you know about the bus driver is that she always wore pink lip stick, waved your kid goodbye from behind the steering wheel and that the bus is still over half full when your kid gets dropped off, just write about that. Either they will recognize what you have written and find solace in the fact that somebody, besides them, knew a bit about their loved one, or they will discover something they have never known, expanding their image of their loved one, adding your own happy memories to the pile.

In times of grief and sorrow, we need to be there for each other. I hope this can help you help others, and would love to hear how you comfort others in these situations, or what has helped you deal with a loss.


Adinda Delporte lives, laughs and loves in Belgium. As an internetworking specialist, she's a rare woman in a field dominated by men and she loves to challenge others to fight stereotyping. Girls in IT and guys in nursing? Splendid! When she finds the time, she blogs about life at Verder in Vlaanderen. Strictly for those who've mastered the basics of the Dutch language though!

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Julia said...

I love this post. I never know what to say or do in times of grief, but this gave me a lot of clarity on how and why we express sympathy in the first place. Thanks!

Kelsey said...

Similar to Julia, this post is such a help. I have often felt at a loss of how to comfort someone. I will keep thinking of big things that I should do for them - put together a gift basket, sew a quilt - but then don't get around to it and instead do nothing, which is horrible. This really helps me and I'm going to make an effort to reach out and express my sympathies, it is certainly what I would want my friends and family to do for me if I experienced a loss or hard time. Thank you!

Kelsey said...

I've found myself in the unfortunate position of needing to send 3 condolence cards this week. I've bought three cards and this post is really helping me to know what to say, thank you!

Naan said...

My love to you Kelsey. I'm happy to know you're less at a loss for words right now. I lost my grandmother 3.5 weeks after writing this post, she has been gone for two months and a week today, and I still find myself looking for comfort at times.

In Dutch we have a saying that goes like this: «Gedeelde vreugde is dubbele vreugde, gedeelde smart is halve smart» which translates to «Joy that is shared is doubled, grief that is shared is halved.» I find it to be very true :)

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