What not to say when someone dies
After I watched Dad die on Thursday, I called my immediate relatives: my brother in Hong Kong, my other brother who was a minute away in his car, my father’s sister.
Once I stopped sobbing, I posted a two-line update on Facebook. Then I sent an e-mail to my Dad’s friends and family; a day later, to my own friends.
Over the past two days, I’ve received back a flood of condolences. Am I gratified and touched? You have no idea. I can’t even read many of these e-mails for the tears.
But because I am an awful person so overloaded with grief, I also judge.
With the deaths of both my parents in the past nine months, I’ve gained quite a bit of experience with condolences. My conclusion is thus: most people have no fucking clue what to say when it comes to expressing their sympathies.
Allow me to express my own apologies in advance. I mean, what kind of person would criticize someone for the exact wording with which he responds to the news of the death of your loved one? A small and degenerate person, that’s who.
All I can say is that my grief is such that I choose to focus on the petty things.
But if you want me to be philosophical about it, I’d say that in this day and age of electronic death notices and sympathies, you have to be extra careful not to let your sloppy e-mail habits seep into this important message. If I were writing my book on funerals today, I’d rant for a whole chapter on this topic.
Number One on my hit list is a close friend of my parents who wrote back:
“Hey! Thanks for letting us know! Hope you guys are well!”
May I just say without being too obnoxious: as a rule, exclamation points have no place in sympathy notes.
Then there was this note from a friend of mine:
“How sweet. Aww. That’s love.”
WTF? It’s sweet that my parents died within nine months of each other? It’s aww?
There was also a Facebook message from another friend telling me she could “totally relate” because she just put down her beloved dog. “Now I know how you feel,” she wrote. “Call me if you want to talk.”
But there were pleasant surprises, too. An old friend of my father’s we knew as a self-important windbag wrote a lovely e-mail detailing how he came to know our father and love him so. In fact, the magic of e-mail has connected us to a slew of friends from Dad’s days as a priest; one called me today to tell me of the pranks they pulled together as seminarians. Some rather casual acquaintances of mine whom, upon rational thinking, I would not even have included in a death notice, wrote respectful but heartfelt notes that I will not forget.
Here’s what to say when the loved one of someone you know dies:
“I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m thinking of you.” If you too have suffered a loss — and no, your golden retriever does not count — it’s kosher to mention that in the context of extending your sympathies. If it’s a close friend, say, “I’ll call you in a few days.” Then call, even if it’s just to leave a message.
And leave out the exclamation marks.