Tuesday, July 7, 2015

No Addiction Required: 12-Step Wisdom for Condolence

Rev. Dr. Andrea Travers is a survivor; surrendered at birth to foster care, until a grandmother discovered and took responsibility for raising her. "As a loner, I turned to spirituality and a relationship with a higher power at a young age," she explains. And when her birth mother reclaimed her, Dr. Travers' life included the chaos of an alcoholic home life. But she views it all with compassion, recognizing that life experiences can forge strength and, in the company of good choices, wisdom.

Before I address condolence writing, let's follow the path Dr. Travers created, to illuminate an important point: We write condolence because we care. 

Compassion literally means 'to suffer together.'

The interactive website 12wisdomsteps.com supports the realization that 'we live in a world of common unity.'  In other words, we share basic needs, which appear around the pictured mandala. Those needs (called Unifying Principles,) serve to "re-label" the 12 Steps.

Unifying Principles of the 12 Steps of A.A. in the Wisdom Traditions. (Travers)
Follow the link of each principle to Dr. Travers' explanation and interpretation across the world's wisdom traditions:

  1. Honesty  
  2. Hope
  3. Faith
  4. Courage
  5. Integrity
  6. Willingness
  7. Humility
  8. Love
  9. Justice
  10. Perseverance
  11. Spirituality
  12. Service
Once you are grounded in the 12 Steps (or Travers' Unifying Principles) life--and how you live it, changes. It is like wearing a pair of glasses that filter out the low-energy reactions of anger, blame, doubt, deceit, fear, pessimism, and isolation. 

No addiction required

The beauty of the Unifying Principles is that you don't need to be in recovery or attending 12-Step meetings, to enjoy them. What they will bring to your condolence writing is remarkable:  an inspired, non-judgmental encouragement to someone suffering in grief.

Unifying Principles in Condolence

  1. Honesty:  Admitting and accepting that we are powerless when a death occurs is an act of honesty. As mortals, death is inevitable, though sometimes circumstances are tragic and painful. Saying 'I'm so sorry" and '"I'm so sad" are a good start.
  2. Hope:  For many, early grief is excruciating and the horizon appears like a black wall. Never minimize someone's grief or apply a platitude about happy endings. But you can suggest "one day, you will breathe easier."
  3. Faith:  A common warning to people who lose a spouse is 'don't rush into big changes or serious decisions.' Unless competency is an issue, I believe a grieving person can connect with inner wisdom and make sound decisions. Be the voice that doesn't promulgate fear; support the widowed person's right to steer their own ship: '"I have always trusted you; it's time to trust yourself."  
  4. Courage:  It is easy to stand in the herd of funeral sympathizers, give yourself credit for showing up, and be done with the interruption. The Tao reminds us that the quality of our actions affect others. Choose the truly compassionate path: write a condolence note. Was there a song, a photo, a story shared in the eulogy that you can comment on?
  5. Integrity:  A condolence note is not about you; it is a gift of care and must never be hurtful, critical, or cruel. Before your pen touches paper, clear your mind of negative feelings--your issues--release them to your journal or a counselor. Now you are ready to compose a non-judgmental, comforting note: "The loss of [name] must be very hard. I know I didn't come by often, but I am deeply grateful for the many ways you made his life better..."
  6. Willingness: Consider spending some goodwill today. It is too easy to stay in your comfort zone, taking care of your own needs until there's nothing leftover. Pick up the phone and extend an invitation to lunch, transportation, help with chores. Do this cheerfully.
  7. Humility:  From time to time, I observe a situation that prompts me to whisper: 'there, but for the grace of God, go I.' I remember with awe countless mercies and acts of generosity that carried me across critical life turning points (Thank you, Dad...) This principle is a wonderful reminder to express appreciation for the life of the deceased AND those who loved and cared for them. Express this with a few detailed observations or memories. 
  8. Love:  Kindness. Kindness. Kindness. Just as no day should be without it, no condolence note should be sealed without your earnest wish for peace in the heart of the bereaved. One footnote here:  in my years of funeral service, I occasionally met survivors who could not afford their loved one's final arrangements, however simple. If you are able, consider a contribution toward expenses.
  9. Justice:  As a friend or acquaintance to someone who grieves, you are standing on a sidewalk, looking into a window. You may know some of the story or witnessed their tears (or lack of,) but you do not truly know what they are experiencing. Tread gently on that sidewalk; don't keep score--don't judge. Consider helpful, fuss-free gestures:  show up with a casserole or tray of cookies, shovel snow, plant a flat of flowers... 
  10. Perseverance:  In grief, there are good days and bad days which often occur unpredictably. One reason the Condolence Coach suggests not rushing a note is that the appearance of one--out of the blue, after funeral-driven attention wanes--is a boost and a balm. Yours can be the note which says: "I woke up to the rain and wondered how you are holding up? I remember the mountain of details when my mom died. Can I lend a hand? My cell is ###"
  11. Spirituality:  Praying for someone who is grieving, is a unique gift. In response to our powerlessness [see principle 1] it can be comforting to 'let go and let God.' I do not want readers to evangelize their belief system in condolence notes, but if you pray for the grieving, it is nice to let them know. "Do you know that feeling when the wind is at your back? Well, I want you to know that I am praying for you; hoping you know you're not alone. Take good care of yourself."
  12. Service:  When Jesus told his followers, "You are the light of the world," he expressed a truth about all people:  we are here to serve each other. Sometimes the work is fun, but sometimes we must take a deep breath and extend ourselves to others. This is compassion. It is your highest calling. The good news is that, with practice, condolence notes become easier to write. Keep reading this blog (if you are new to it, catch up on the 100+ archived posts) and you will discover your 'light'.
I want to express my appreciation to Rev. Dr. Travers for her outstanding work and wisdom-rich website!

Thank you for caring!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this amazing tribute - both personally and professionally. I apologize for the delay in responding....it has been a busy, busy time!

I hope your readers will discover new connections between condolence, compassion and the wisdom from the ages.

May we always find a sacred connection......

Andrea Travers