Thursday, July 14, 2016

Condolence when you do not know the deceased

Expressing sympathy when you do not know the deceased

It happens so often: a co-worker, a friend or neighbor loses a loved one--someone you have never met. In fact, the extent of your awareness may range from "mom's in assisted living," to a complete void of personal information. What can you possibly say about someone you know little about? Let's take a look in my book...

 Words for when there are No Words, Writing a Memorable Condolence Note

The suggested condolence writing principle is to Find a common ground and stand together.  Begin with some information gathering; it is okay to ask:
  • What is his/her name? How old is he/she?
If a brief conversation is possible, you can ask for more life details:
  • What kind of work did he/she do?
  • Did he/she have siblings or children?
With this information, you may begin to do some life comparison; what are those fields of common ground? In the basic news of the death such as "Jenny's mother died," you immediately learn the relationship, which can trigger your own thoughts on having and/or grieving a mother.

Another piece of common ground is memories. Everyone has them; every relationship and experience creates them. Though you do not know the deceased, you can invite your co-worker to reflect on memories and discover their comfort. After a death, memories can flow in from different seas of life--the happy and the regretful. Acknowledging basic truths like purpose and life contribution, love, legacy--are ways to honor the deceased without intruding.
Author photo

Let me tell you about a recent experience where I did not know the deceased

The brother of a friend had died, out of state. I learned of the death while trying to make social plans; our friend would be back East for a couple weeks to attend the memorial service and catch up with extended family. In order to personalize my condolence, I asked for the brother's name and if he had children. I began recalling a visit we'd had at a local restaurant; chatting about our hometowns and early Midwestern lives, anecdotes were shared about growing up in large families. I remembered the chuckles and warm feelings shared, and knew these would be the essence of my note:  reminding my friend (addressed to husband and wife) of the warm adventures he enjoyed with "Marty." I also noted the continued importance of their role as aunt and uncle to the surviving adult children--how special that connection will be, even at a distance. Mentioning their aunt and uncle roles allowed me to express appreciation for "their side" of the relationship. Another way to do this could be to comment on their way of cherishing family history.

(Note: If you have had a personal experience facing the death of the same relative, you may share a brief comment on the impact of that type of loss, but do not make this note about you!) When our friend received the note, he phoned to thank me for the most memorable and comforting condolence he had ever read or received.

Author drawing
Become familiar with my Key Comforts, which are described extensively in the book. These are tools for composing your note. Like opening your tool box to get the right size screwdriver, choose a few Key Comforts that fit the situation. They include:  Sharing the loss, sharing a well-known memory, gratitude for the deceased’s life, and appreciation for a quality of the survivor.

Thank you for caring!

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