Condolences… What Does One Say?

Empathy Growth mindset Respect


Key Point: What does one say to grieving loved ones when someone they cherish has died? This question is very relevant in the workplace too. My last blog referred to the tragic and unexpected loss of a co-worker. Upon reflection, I realize that no one really teaches us what to say in those circumstances. We certainly don’t learn it in a college class. If we’re “fortunate” (sort of), someone along the way, has showed us the way to navigate the loss everyone eventually experiences. However, none of us wants to experience so much death that we ever get practiced at it.

I remember when my childhood best friend died. I was visiting my son Garrett (yup, the millennial view guy below) in college, when my mom called to let me know. We were having dinner, and I immediately called Dwayne’s mom to offer my condolences. I can still see the somewhat uncomfortable look on Garrett’s face, yet I wanted to model how I think one might best respond in that situation. Hopefully that’s stuck with him in a difficult but good way.

To help us all with the challenge of “what to say,” I was struck by a “timely” article in this Sundays NYT. I’d like to share an edited version of it. Hopefully it will be a helpful reference should you be in the unfortunate situation of having to use it. The foundation of the article is a seasoned quote from someone most of you likely have little or no connection to – the mother of modern etiquette, Emily Post“Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.”

For those who are inexperienced or out of practice in comforting someone in grief, the following are tips regarding the lost art of condolence:

“1. BEING TONGUE-TIED IS O.K.: When I solicited advice from friends on social media, the one overwhelming thing I heard was it’s perfectly acceptable to admit you don’t know what to say. One rabbi said, ‘Admitting you’re at a loss for words is far more caring and helpful than writing pithy statements like ‘he’s in a better place’ or ‘your child was so perfect, God wanted her to sit beside him.’’

2. SHARE A POSITIVE MEMORY: Instead of falling back on a shopworn phrase, savvy condolers often share a warm or uplifting memory of the deceased… The condolence notes that moved him most, he said, were from strangers who shared a recollection of his father. ‘That was important for me because I realized his place in the world,” he said. ‘At the time, you’re only thinking of your own relation to the loved one. You realize this person had impact beyond you. That was comforting.’

3. NO COMPARISONS: One bit of quicksand worth avoiding is the temptation to say you know what the other person is going through. Everyone experiences grief differently. While you may have felt angry or overwhelmed when your loved one died, the person you’re writing to may have channeled her grief into work or hyper-efficient house purging. The temptation is to bring it back to yourself, but this is not about you.’ A better approach… is to be neutral. ‘You can absolutely express your sadness and sorrow,’… ‘But remove yourself from the conversation.’

4. DON’T DODGE THE ‘D’ WORDS: Death in our culture has become so sanitized; we have become afraid to mention it by name. While this instinct may come from a good place, it often lands in a bad one, the treacly territory of euphemism and happy talk. Loved ones don’t ‘die’ anymore; they’re ‘carried away’ or ‘resting peacefully.’… ‘Don’t’ be afraid to use the ‘D’ words — dead, died or death. Terms such as ‘expired,’ ‘passed on’ or ‘lost’ are words of denial. ‘Expired’ can be used on a driver’s license but not in person — it’s not respectful.’

5. GET REAL: A little bluntness goes a long way… ‘I think my favorite note upon the death of my brother was from one of my closest friends. ‘My dear Jane,’ he wrote. ‘IT STINKS.’

6. FACEBOOK IS NOT ENOUGH: These days many people first learn of the death of a friend’s loved one via social media. The instinct to post a comment or dash off an email is understandable. But everyone I spoke with agreed on one point: Even heartfelt gestures like these do not replace a condolence note… ‘A letter of condolence to a friend is one of the obligations of friendship.’

7. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON SYMPATHY: While writing immediately is comforting, it’s not necessary. Many mourners are overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath, and a number told me they especially appreciated cards that arrived weeks or even months after the death.”

Character Moves:

  1. Save the condolence guidelines in your device and/or in the cloud. When the time comes (and it will eventually) you have a quick reference guide.

Condolences in The Triangle,


One Millennial View: Wow, that memory had escaped me, but now that you mention it I certainly remember that phone call. I think the overall theme of this guideline seems to be: Offer your condolences however and whenever you feel comfortable, but make sure to do it – you’ve already signed up for that duty, and the company you keep is worth it.

– Garrett Rubis

Edited and published by Garrett Rubis