Notes of Condolences

“What should I say?”

Don’t we all have a hollow stomach when it comes time to write a note or make a phone call to a friend who has experienced the death of a loved one?  It is awkward and difficult and uncomfortable.  Often we try to write what makes us feel better and miss the opportunity to be a true comfort to the bereaved.  

1.  I think the most common mistake we make is to gloss over the loss and go straight to the hope of the future, i.e. “I’m so sorry you lost your son in Iraq, but what a joy that you will see him again in heaven.”  There is a time to every purpose under heaven, and that includes a time to mourn.  We need to allow time to process the loss, time to cry every tear in our body out, time to pull the blanket over our face and convulse. 

Why are we so impatient with pain? We are we so uncomfortable with grief, so anxious to sweep it up and dispose of it?  One of the most asinine things I’ve ever heard was spoken to my girlfriend whose eighteen year old daughter was killed by a drunk driver.  Three months had passed since the accident; a woman approached my girlfriend whose taut-as-a-drum face reflected her grief and asked, “Aren’t you over it yet?”

2.   An easy way to slip-up is to gloss over the loss by going straight to the explanation.  We all become accountants and won’t tolerate untidy loose strings of mystery.  Or we become a Fix-It Man who needs to fix whatever is broken.  What we say might be true…but the timing is false.  God does work all things together for good, a believer is undoubtedly happier in the presence of the Lord, the deceased is certainly spared more grief on this earth.  Expressions of faith –  “The Lord gives, the Lord takes away, Blessed be the name of the Lord” – are sometimes articulated by the bereaved.  If she says it, accept it.  If she doesn’t, don’t force it.

3.  A less common error is to discount the loss.  After my dear neighbor lost her husband to a heart attack, another neighbor shrugged and dispensed his philosophy: “Well, we’re all going to die sometime.”  There is a temptation with the loss of a young child to use the fourth grade arithmetic skill of canceling:  “You can always have another child.”  Or with the loss of an agéd parent, “At least she had a long and productive life.”

4.  Those who have experienced the death of a loved one can be tempted to say, “I know just how you feel”.  Don’t do it, even if you are convinced it is true.  Every relationship is unique. 

When I write a note, I often employ the words of wiser and more articulate people.  This post is an attempt to gather together some of those words.

~ She who was so precious to you

We are terribly saddened by the death of your cherished sister, our dear aunt; but our sorrow at losing her is as nothing compared to our concern for your sake, because your suffering will be all the greater, Sire, as truly you have no one else left in your world, now that she, who could not have been more precious to you, has parted, and therefore we can only imagine how you sustain the severity of such a sudden and completely unexpected blow… I will say no more, except that with all our hearts we fervently pray the Lord to comfort you and be with you always, and we greet you dearly with our ardent love.     

           from Galileo’s daughter to Galileo, May 10, 1623.  Quoted in Galileo’s Daughter

~ No words

My favorite story about my father relates to a time when a co-worker lost a child.  My
father went to his friend’s house and sat with him and his wife.  They cried and just sat together.  No words were ever spoken.  Dad just
soaked up some of the excess grief.  This man later told me that my
father’s silent presence was the greatest comfort during that time. Some times we can’t be bodily present; some times I write There are no words.

~ It’s hard

When my dad died, my brother Jim wrote one of the most profound notes to our step-mother.  He wrote one sentence and signed his name.  It is hard to say goodbye

This is what the Puritans called a ‘hard providence‘ is another way to acknowledge the loss. 

~  God support you

God bless you and support you under your heavy affliction.
    written to John Adams by Thomas Jefferson after the death of Abigail Adams

~  I’m sorry

A very simple expression of love and sympathy: I’m sorry for your loss.

~ We’re praying

Another simple sentence which hits the spot: We’re praying for you in this difficult time.

Any suggestions?  I plan to add to this post as I come across other notes.


12 thoughts on “Notes of Condolences

  1. What a wonderful post! 
     I will print and place in my condolence file to help when I have writer’s block.  In fact, I have three widows who are due notes from me.  I almost sent them each  a card around Valentine’s in order to say that I was thinking of them.  But I lost my nerve. 
    Your father must have been incredibly comfortable (in his own skin).    He must exude good vibes 🙂 
    Writing thank-you notes doesnt create the same anxiety for me that a note of condolence does.  But like I mentioned in a post a few weeks ago, I think it’s better to write…even if it’s *late*  I know I would appreciate it.  Early, on time, or late.
    And one more thing, I hope when I’m on the receiving end, I will try and receive people’s comments as if they are *trying* to say something nice.

  2. This is a favorite topic of mine–when i was going through a time of miscarriages, one friend simply brought apple fritters and cried with me; another called and said she was coming to take my 5 year old overnight to give me some time. These things ministered greatly to my grieving soul.
    The things that did not help were friends that didn’t know what to say so they wouldn’t even look at me or speak to me at all, or those who said in great spirituality, “well, God must have a reason.” Pardon? God decided He should kill my baby?
    You are absolutely correct in saying you need to allow a person time to grieve. That’s the simple truth. No matter the particular loss, you’ve summed up the most important truth. Good post.

  3. I went through a period of losing a dear great-uncle and 3 grandparents all within 3-4 years, about ten years ago. I heard every thoughtful AND thoughtless comment imaginable. I tried to remember that the thoughtless ones were said by people who really truly did care but just didn’t know how to say it right. Really, there are very few people whose hearts aren’t with you when you’re grieving. Most people don’t have someone or a book to tell them what is good/bad/kind/thoughtless, so they say what they think is helpful. The best thing I am apt to do (when talking to a grieving friend) was something I said to a dear friend whose first pregnancy ended in miscarriage. I honestly didn’t know what to say, and just kept crying with her. All I said was, “I’m so sorry.” Later, she told me that was the best thing anyone had said to her through it all. I heartily subscribe to the “less is better” philosophy in this area. 

  4. I emailed a message to you and then visited here — oh my, what is the Lord trying to tell me?!   Truly a thought-filled and thought-provoking post that I shall save.

  5. Quietness is often good when you are with someone who is grieving.  My uncle lost his wife to Alzheimer’s in September.  When we are with him – he easily bursts into tears.  It has been neat because I haven’t felt awkward or embarrassed for those tears.  He sometimes apologizes but I reply something to the effect that grief is natural and not something to hide.
    I often write out a prayer included in a note to a grieving friend (or for that matter – I usually write out a prayer in my letters anyway!)  It might go something like this:
    Lord, please help Uncle John with his grieving heart.  I have no words of my own that can comfort him – like You can.  My words are empty or too shallow.  I don’t know what to say.  I pray that you will give him a sense of peace that can’t be explained – the kind that goes beyond human understanding.  I pray that you would just love him right now.  Assure him.  Enable him to trust You now.  Enable him to remember that you always do things for Your glory and for our good.  I thank you Lord that you are patient with us.  I thank you Lord that you understand completely our grief.  I thank you Lord that we don’t have to explain how we feel to You.  I thank you Lord that there is freedom in being honest with you.  I thank you that it is not wrong to tell you that our hearts feel like they have been torn from us and that we ache inside in a way that can’t be explained when we lose someone we love.  Please help Uncle John to process all the hurt that he feels and to sit quietly with You.  I pray that you would quiet his heart.  Thank you for loving him.  Thank you for your enabling grace.  Amen.

  6. This was a beautiful, instructive post. Truly, this is something the God of all Comfort wishes for us to learn how to do.  The only thing I have to add is that a note of condolence is sometimes even more appreciated 6 or 8 weeks after the loss of a loved one.  At that time, the reality of the loss has set in and the cards and flowers have dropped off.  It is just nice to know someone still remembers.  Thank you Carol, for your lovely thoughts on this tender subject.

  7. The sentence that comforted me the most when my uncle died was my aunt’s “He loved you very much”. 
    We were taught in Psych class that it takes 2 years for a person to feel “normal” after a deep loss.  I wish more people would give grievers LOTS of time to grieve.

  8. Carol,You know this is a soap-box topic for me (-:  I think we have to give each other the grace to grieve as best we can.  We can’t all read a book and “do it the right way.”  Sometimes it gets messy, sometimes it takes “too long”, sometimes it looks like denial when it is really just making it through the day.  You’re right — no one understands someone’s grief.  It is such a personal experience. I do agree with Dana, though — we also have to give people grace when they try and say kind things and fail miserably.  It’s hard to care for a grieving person.I tend to send notes at times that  might be hard — a birthday, mother’s day, anniversary, etc.  And brief is usually best.  Thinking of you….praying for you….sending love….whatever.  No easy answers, just letting them know they are loved.Good thoughts, Carol.  I so appreciate you.Di

  9. This was such a wonderful post.  you said:Why are we so impatient with pain?  I think this is one of the best questions I seen asked in a long time.  Why indeed.One of my favorite books, that I just finished re-reading (A Sacred Journey) delves into the area of grief, regret, and loss.I cannot believe some of the things people say, but then I worry I may have one of those asinine things come out of my mouth inadvertently.  I hope not, but then again, I don’t trust myself to always be careful and think before I speak.  Your post was a good lesson for me as I walk with my Goddaughter and her family through her finals days on earth.

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