When There Are No Words

4 tips on how to write a (really good) sympathy card after something (absolutely terrible) has happened

What to say:

1. Be sincere and share how you’re feeling without overshadowing their grief.

  • Example of sharing your pain in an appropriate way: “Desi was such a positive light in my life. His humor brought me so much joy over the years. I will miss him terribly.”
  • Example of overshadowing the bereaved’s pain: “This is the saddest thing that’s ever happened to me — I don’t know how I will get through this.”

2. Share a fond memory if you have one — especially if the card receiver has never heard it.

Anything that stands out to you will be special, even if it seems insignificant.

3. Share how you will continue to remember and honor the deceased (examples below)

  • “I know Ralph loved key lime pie. Whenever I see it on the menu I’ll be sure to order it and think of him.”
  • “My children are too young to remember your mom, but I will tell them about those adventurous summers we had camping together. I’m going to teach them how to light a campfire, just like how she taught me.”

4. If you want to offer help, be specific. If you can make a commitment, do it.

  • Avoid (at all costs) ‘call me if you need me’ — this puts the burden of action on the person you are trying to help. They will never call you.
  • Offer a concrete way to help. Try ‘I will bring you dinner next week’, or ‘I can watch the kids for you on Friday morning’ and follow up on your offer.
  • If you are in a position to offer ongoing support, don’t be shy about sharing what you can do. For example, “I am home every Sunday afternoon. I would love to have your kids over to our house on the weekend so you have time to yourself. They are welcome any and all Sundays.” Or, “What would be more helpful, if I bring over dinner every Friday or take your dog for hikes instead?”

What not to say:

Avoid all platitudes. Common examples:

  • You’re strong, you will get through this
  • They’re in a better place
  • They’ll always be with you/in your heart
  • At least they….(didn’t suffer, are no longer suffering, didn’t know what was happening, had a chance to say goodbye, etc. etc. etc.)
  • May your memories bring you comfort
  • Everything happens for a reason
  • I can’t imagine what you’re going through
  • God needed an angel
  • God wouldn’t give you more than you can handle

It is best not to mention what I’ll call religious comfort. Keep in mind that people who find comfort in their faith may not find comfort in statements like the ones I’ve listed above in the very early days after a loss. It is best to err on the side of caution and leave them out.

Many of the religious statements or platitudes listed above are not really about offering support. They’re encouraging the bereaved to accept their new reality or express gratitude during heartache. Platitudes often have the effect of minimizing the bereaved’s pain. Despite your intentions, which likely are to lend support and comfort, cards with the above statements usually end up angering the recipient.

What if I’m… (answers to your pressing questions)

What if I’m far away and can’t help directly?

Even if you can’t physically help the bereaved, you can still provide support. You could send a gift certificate to a nearby restaurant or a grocery delivery service. You could send a no-pressure text each week (by no pressure, you indicate that the bereaved has no obligation to respond to you) to check-in. This post includes ways that far-away friends helped me after my sister died.

What if I didn’t really know the person who died?

A card would still be much appreciated. You could also share memories of what you’ve heard your friend/loved one say about the deceased. For example, “I never got to meet your uncle, but I remember when you told me that story of when you all got stuck with a flat and your uncle….” Or, “I know how important your grandmother was to you. I would love to hear more stories about her when you’re ready.” (Pssst it’s pretty much always appropriate and much appreciated to go to the funeral, even if you didn’t know the deceased).

What if I don’t really know the bereaved?

Maybe a tragedy has struck a family in your neighborhood, but you don’t know them personally. Maybe it was a friend of a friend. A condolence card is appropriate even if you don’t know the person. I send a lot of cards to families I’ve never met, and I will often search for the deceased’s obituary, and then include facts I’ve learned that have struck me with the family. If the bereaved are in your network, you can ask a friend or someone who else who knows them to share information about the person they’ve lost. For example, “When reading Clyde’s obituary it was obvious to me how much he enjoyed being in the outdoors.” Or, “Kathy mentioned that Susan loved animals and spent a lot of time volunteering at the animal shelter.” If you feel compelled to say something, do it.

What if I’m not sure what to do?

It helps to understand (and, I mean, really understand), that this is a situation that you can’t fix. It is not expected that you will make it all better. Often it is the really small gestures that stand out for the bereaved. Dropping off an iced coffee. Reliably texting once a week. Sending a care package (we offer some). Providing them with an opportunity to be heard. Offering validation — acknowledge their pain and the magnitude of their loss without any ‘at leasts’ (e.g., at least you got to say goodbye or at least they lived a long life).

What if I never hear back?

Maybe you sent a card or a care package or a casserole to a family but you never heard back from them. This does not in any way mean that your gift wasn’t appreciated or that your actions have upset the bereaved. For them, following up, even for incredibly kind and generous gestures, can be a Herculean task. It is best not to expect a reply.

What if I’m scared that I’m annoying them?

The last thing you want to do when someone is grieving is to make their life worse. And, especially if you don’t hear back from them, it’s hard to know if you are helping or being a nuisance. Great grief support requires a lot of paying attention to small details and picking up on social cues. It’s also about removing your expectations for social norms (e.g., getting a thank you) and providing the bereaved with an easy out.

For example, if you’ve checked in with someone living with loss but haven’t heard back, you could follow up again and include the disclaimer, “I want you to know that I’m still thinking of you. I don’t expect you to respond but I am here.” Or you could try, “I still want to help you and will be bringing dinner again on Thursday at 6 pm. You do not need to come out and see me, I can leave it on the stoop but I will be there if you want a hug. If this is more of a burden than a help, just respond with a ‘no’ to let me know you’d rather if I didn’t come by.” The key is to help the bereaved know that there are no expectations for reciprocity to your kindness and that they don’t have to worry about hurting your feelings. Continue to support them, but provide an easy out if they need it.

What if I’m nervous?

That’s OK. Most everyone, regardless of how many times they’ve experienced loss themselves or have supported friends, will feel uneasy about what to say to someone in the depths of grief. Sometimes it helps to remember that it is not your job to make things better. Death is an unsolvable situation. There is no cure.

Speak from your heart. Do not try to minimize their pain or push them towards acceptance. If all else fails, narrate what you’re thinking, like, ‘I want to be able to something to help you but I’m at a loss for words,’ or say ‘I don’t know what to say, but I am so sorry.’

It is easy to get caught up in wanting to say the perfect thing that you feel unable to say anything. Saying something is almost always better than saying nothing at all.

Image Credit: @hereforyou.co

(I send a special thank you to my friends in the TCF Sibs and the Parent Loss Support Group who provided helpful feedback for this post)

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Kellyn has been trying to change the way people support each other in grief since the unexpected death of her sister, Alison, in 2017. Her work can be found on her blog and on Modern Loss.

Navigating sibling & parent loss and trying to change the way people support each other in grief. Founder at www.hereforyou.co

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