Welcome to a new DW series called “Women Discuss,” in which women discuss topics relevant to being a woman in the world (like dating, marriage, motherhood, navigating careers, being a stepparent, coping with grief, heartache, all sorts of relationship and friendship issues, transitioning into middle age, caring for aging parents, embracing political activism, etc.*). Today we’re discussing condolence cards/expressing sympathy (a subject inspired by this recent forum thread): why it’s so important, what to say, and what not to say.
In the fall, I received a very sweet card from the sister of a close friend of mine. She was writing to thank me for a condolence card I sent after she lost her daughter at birth, exactly five years earlier. At the time, when her sister texted me the devastating news, I couldn’t imagine what she must be going through, and I didn’t really know what to say, but I knew I had to say something, I had to convey my heartfelt sympathy to her and let her know, mother to mother, how sorry I was for the loss of her baby.
In her card to me five years later, she told there was one word I said to her that meant more than anything. Below, she shares what the word was, and we hear from her and a few other woman about their experiences losing loved ones (children, a spouse, parents, pets), what expressions of sympathy were most comforting to them and what would have been better left not said. And then I share a few tips for writing a meaningful condolence card.
Just say something
“Five years ago, my life changed forever when I lost my daughter, Palmer, at birth. It felt as if my heart had been ripped right out of my chest. In the days that followed, we received an endless stream of cards, private messages, comments, emails, flowers, texts and phone calls, and I appreciated each and every message we received (and saved them all!), because each one was an acknowledgment of my daughter and our overwhelming grief. It didn’t matter what was written inside, all that mattered to me was the love each message contained, which helped to shine light into a time otherwise full of darkness.
Although I appreciated them all, there were a select few that took on more meaning to me — two come to mind in this moment. The first was from my sister’s friend. Without looking at the card I don’t recall everything she wrote, but I do remember that she referred to me as a mother. That one word meant more to me than I could ever express.
The second was a private message I’d received on Facebook from my former boss. Again, I don’t recall the exact wording, but I do remember her saying that time should stop when a child dies, and that was EXACTLY how I was feeling at the time.
On the flip side of things, there were those who said nothing. Now I understand that it must be difficult to find the words. I mean, what the hell do you say to someone who’s just lost a child? I get it. Or maybe they were worried they might say or write something that would upset me or make me sad, but, I can assure you, there are no words in existence that could hurt WORSE than losing my daughter. The silence, however, was pretty damn close.
So my advice to those of you sending condolences is that it doesn’t matter how you send it (card, email, text, PM, etc.), or what you say; what matters most is that you send your love at all. If you don’t know what to say, find a card that says it for you and sign it “with love” or “this fucking sucks!” or “sending you prayers,” or even, with just your name, because sending something is far better than sending nothing at all.” — Mara
But resist saying you don’t know how they’re surviving this
“My son Davey died April 27, 2014. He had been out with friends and, because he didn’t drink, he was the designated driver. He had just dropped off a friend who had been drinking and was hit by two cars that were street racing with their headlights off. He died instantly. He was 25.
The outpouring of love and support that we received from friends, neighbors and family was one of the few things that I remember during that time. I received many, many condolence cards. I will say that I couldn’t read them for a while. When I finally did, I was comforted by the comments from people who just wanted me to know they were thinking of me. I had a few “well meaning” people who wrote things like “he’s in a better place” (maybe, but not comforting to a mother who needs her baby back) or “I don’t know how you are surviving this, I couldn’t if anything happened to one of my kids” (really? if that isn’t the most backward ass compliment, I don’t know what is).” — Debbie
If you knew the deceased, send a message to his or her closest loved ones, even if you didn’t know them personally
“My mother passed away unexpectedly when I was a teenager. One of the condolence cards I received that meant the most to me was from her coworkers, most whom had never met me. It was comforting for me to know that there were even more people thinking of me and rooting for me than I had realized. I think a condolence card is a really nice gesture of support, even if it’s not someone you’re close to – it’s more people who knew and will remember your loved one. I appreciated every person who took the time to reach out to me.
I also appreciated when people would share a quick story or personal comment about my mom. It made the sentiment feel more genuine, and made me feel like she wouldn’t be forgotten.
I didn’t like when people told me they knew what I was going through. Grief is such an individual thing, but also – don’t make someone else’s loss about yourself. Focus on the person and their loss, and offer your support.” — Jenny
Share a happy personal memory
“I was widowed at 31 after 2-1/2 months of marriage. I’m closing in on my sophomore year of widowhood and it’s been a trip. As far as condolences go, I found the most sincere ones came from those people who were comfortable enough with the fact that they didn’t know what to say, and that there really wasn’t anything to say that would change the unimaginable emotional and physical pain I was in. Those family members, friends, and acquaintances who weren’t afraid to sit in the grief with me, even momentarily, meant the most to me. It made the moments of despair not only less isolating, but also let me know how much my husband was loved by others and would be missed by all.
The absence of condolence messages was also noticed. I would hear later that some close friends “just didn’t know what to say” and thought that, by not acknowledging it, it would somehow be better? Look, I get it. Death makes people uncomfortable. But you know what else is uncomfortable? Having to live every day without the person I planned to spend every day with. Trying to not make the grieving person upset by not mentioning the loved one tends to backfire. All I can say is, I’ve learned more compassion for those who are struggling. And when it comes down to it, the best thing you can say is how sorry you are and that you know there just aren’t any words to justify the pain. Lastly, offer a happy personal memory about the one who passed. I loved hearing stories from my husband’s friends who knew him before I came along.” — Emily
Express heartfelt sympathy when a beloved pet dies
“My dear shihtzu, Journey, was sixteen years old when it was apparent his health was declining. We took him to an emergency clinic where it was advised to euthanize him. It was the most difficult but right decision. I was blown away with how devastating it was. While friends and family were “sorry for my loss,” I felt they believed I was overreacting with my grief. A few days later a card came from the clinic. I don’t remember exactly what the hand written note said, but it acknowledged my grief. While the clinic only knew Journey during his last few moments, they understood how much he meant to me and what a difficult decision it was. I realized they must write dozens of these notes a week, but I believed the words were truly heartfelt. Those people closest to me could not understand what I was going through, yet this personal card from strangers gave me solace in the knowledge I was not crazy for grieving so deeply for my dear Journey.” — Sue
I felt the same thing when my 19-year-old cat Simone died this past October. It was, and remains, the deepest grief I’ve ever felt. I know there are harder losses down the pike, and the loss of my grandmother a month to the day before Simone died was also painful, but losing Simone felt like losing a part of myself. The cards and flowers and texts and messages (here, on social media, through email) really made me feel better. And, like Sue, the card I received from the vet was especially helpful. She said I made the most loving decision (euthanasia) and that Simone was so lucky (of course, I felt like the lucky one having 19 years with her), which lifted any remaining guilt I had. — Wendy
Just send the bloody thing
“My husband died suddenly of an aortic dissection on a beautiful May evening in 2015. He was at home with me and my 14-year-old daughter at the time; we were watching TV and waiting for an Indian takeaway and within minutes nothing was ever the same again.
I think the most important thing for me is that people actually sent *anything*. It really didn’t matter how awkward, generic or brief the messages were; to us, each card was a reaching-out that let us know we weren’t alone and that can’t be underestimated. There was no such thing as a bad card. The ones that stood out were the ones that mentioned a specific memory. For example a colleague recalled that she used to love that Kev and I held hands until the very moment we walked into work (we worked together as teachers in a prison) and had to become ‘professionals’ rather than ‘partners’; we also used to sing as a duo, so memories of our performances were also lovely.
The cards that spoke to both me and Ella were fabulous – they spoke direcly to a young woman who had just lost her dad, and at the time she needed to hear those voices of support far more than I did. The best one was the one that stated that “Everything is a bit shit”: it was true, and made us laugh – just perfect.
If I were to give anyone advice, it would be just to send the bloody thing. Just sign your name, say you’re sorry, whatever. The gesture is the important thing, not your impeccable language skills.” — Suzi
There are lots of way to show support when someone loses a loved one, but the easiest and fastest way is through a heartfelt condolence card or message. Here are some things to say in your condolence message:
1. If you knew their loved one, share a positive memory you have of him or her.
2. If you didn’t know their loved one, share something positive you remember hearing about him or her or the relationship between your friend and them. (Even “You always spoke so highly of your father. It was evident how much he meant to you” is good. Or “Your mother was so proud of you — she talked about you and your brother at work all the time.”)
3. If you never heard anything about the lost loved one, or if what you heard or know was negative or complicated, know that complicated relationships can sometimes be the hardest to grieve, so express that you’re thinking of your friend.
4. When all else fails, a few phrases that are appropriate: “S/he was so lucky to have you,” “Words fail me now, but please know you are in my thoughts constantly,” “This is so unfair,” “May the memories be of comfort,” “I miss him so much, too” and “She will never be forgotten.”
1. Their lost loved one is in a better place.
2. This was God’s plan.
3. This happened for a reason.
4. You know exactly how they feel.
5. Nothing. Seriously, please say something when someone you know — even just an acquaintance — loses a loved one, even if it’s belated. I would imagine that, even months after a loss, knowing that someone is still thinking of you would be comforting.
Anything you would add?
P.S. A nice gift for someone you’re close to who has lost a loved one is a box to store condolence cards. When Drew’s dad died a few years ago, I got him a box like this, and I had it engraved to say “In Memory” with his dad’s initials. I know that meant a lot to him.
* If you would like to contribute to future Women Discuss posts, shoot me an email at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com with “The Hive” in the subject line. If you want to share your age, marital status, where you live, and whether you have kids, that would also be great. And if you’d just like to share ideas for topics you want to read more about, feel free to pass those along, too. Thank you!!