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May. 16 2009 - 7:54 pm | 1,892 views | 2 recommendations | 11 comments

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.


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s tough- and it seems there is never the right thing to say. When my own mom died, my co-workers seemed to avoid eye contact for a while. But I trusted that those who matter were sorry for my loss, though they may not know how to express it. But nobody expects the loss of a parent to be anything but difficult.

  2. collapse expand

    Many years ago, a friend told me that as soon as she heard about my premature stillborn baby, she “just had to go and snuggle her baby right away.” An understandable thing to do, but not to say.

  3. collapse expand

    I agree with you wholeheartedly on the punctuation regulation: exclamation marks are for birth, not death.

    I, of course, would be tempted to respond to that email with the following:
    “Thanks!! We’re doing well. I’m just trying to decide whether to wear a long-sleeved black dress or a black skirt with a white shirt and cardigan. Dressing for a funeral is so dreary, isn’t it?!? Hope you can make it!”

  4. collapse expand

    Thanks for this. A friend of mine lost a parent a while back. We get in touch every few years, but I haven’t known what to say. I’m assuming condolences are better late than never…

  5. collapse expand

    Condolences are tough. But what about responses when you have a loved one with cancer? Equally tough…and when you’re going through infertility…or have had a miscarriage. You’ve nailed an issue I have recognized for a while – we as a culture don’t learn the proper ways to communicate with each other. When it’s good news, we engage in superficial chit chat. When it’s tough or bad news, we put around us the “cone of silence,” which to me is the worst. I’d rather have someone flub lines versus acting like I’ve said nothing at all.

  6. collapse expand

    I’m so sorry for your loss. I’m thinking of you. Really, although I of course never met you.

  7. collapse expand

    Hi Lisa, I am truely sorry for you lose, I know this comment is late in coming, but felt the urge to write. I had a friend recently lose a close friend of theirs and these were my words to them…. I’d like your thoughts…

    I know there is nothing for me to say that will make your loss easier. I hope you can understand what I can’t put in to words.

    I’m sure your friend was a kindhearted, generous person and you were a target of their kindness and generosity and I’m assured that you will be comforted by y our memories and their love.

    I have never been good at writing these things, but I don’t want that to keep me from letting you know the deep sympathy I feel for you at this time.

    It’s obvious from your words the deep and immeasurable impact your friend has had in your life…. I hope and pray the fond memories you have of them bring warmth and joy in your life as well as those you’ve known in common…

    You’re in my thoughts and prayers…

    Barak

  8. collapse expand

    Hi Lisa, I am truely sorry for your loss…. I imagine you have fond memories that you will cherish…

    I recently had a friend who lost a close friend of theirs and I didn’t know what to say… here is what I came up with… I’d love your thoughts on it…

    I know there is nothing for me to say that will make your loss easier. I hope you can understand what I can’t put in to words.

    I’m sure your friend was a kindhearted, generous person and you were a target of their kindness and generosity and I’m assured that you will be comforted by y our memories and their love.

    I have never been good at writing these things, but I don’t want that to keep me from letting you know the deep sympathy I feel for you at this time.

    It’s obvious from your words the deep and immeasurable impact your friend has had in your life…. I hope and pray the fond memories you have of them bring warmth and joy in your life as well as those you’ve known in common…

    You’re in my thoughts and prayers…

    Barak

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    Read Wasabi Mama for your daily dose of sinus-clearing rant on parenting, work, media and entertainment. If you like a fresh nasal passage, please click below my photo to "follow me." For more on me, please visit www.lisacullen.com.

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