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A few things I’ve learned about condolence notes

I was what you might call a death virgin, unscathed by irreparable loss, when I sat down to write my first condolence note. A colleague my age, 20-something, had just lost her mother, and no words came to mind as I pondered the blank white card. I didn’t know my colleague well, yet I knew that courtesy required an appropriate expression of care. As a grownup, I would now be called upon to do this sort of thing, and I had no example to follow.

Fredelle Green KingdomMy own mother, a formidably eloquent writer, struggled mightily to write condolence notes. She would draft them in red pen, bloodying the page with corrections. After she died I found some of those drafts in her papers. A woman of extravagant emotion, she tended to put her own sorrow front and centre, as in this first stab at a letter to her newly widowed uncle: “I have been trying for the last two days to write you, but nothing I can say is even a shadow of my grief. How deeply I loved Aunt Lu…. Losing her is losing a part of my self.” She must have mailed off something not dissimilar, because she also left another draft that begins, “I have thought of you very often these last few weeks. And it occurs to me that when I last wrote, I was so overwhelmed with grief, so desperately stricken at the thought of my beloved Aunt Lu, that I must have said very little about my love and concern for you.”

You. The most important word in every letter of condolence. The goal is always to console survivors, not to prove either the depth of your anguish or the intimacy of your bond with the deceased.

I have no idea what I wrote on that first condolence card but I suspect I rambled on too long for fear of trivializing the momentous finality of death. Since I made my living with words, I figured that my colleague deserved her fair share of them to cushion her bereavement. Then my own mother died, and I became a student of condolence. Although they didn’t know it, her friends became my mentors, teaching me the difference between a truly comforting phrase or thought and an irritating platitude. I wish I didn’t have so many opportunities to practice what I learned in those months of grief. Now I try to keep these principles in mind:

* Often less is more. If you didn’t know the person who has died, all you really need to say is something along these lines: “You and your family are on my mind as you face the loss of your irreplaceable father. With deepest sympathy…” There’s no cure for the devastation of mourning, but there’s comfort to be found in good wishes.

* Share any bracing memories that you have. Every scrap of a story becomes precious when there will never be any new ones. After my mother died, I was grateful for every zinger that only she would have uttered, every kindness cherished by a friend. “I hope that perhaps you’ll let this letter be a thread in the tapestry [your mother’s] friends and family will weave,” wrote someone I had never met or heard of. One woman, never close to my mother, wrote about the pleasure of sitting in her plant-filled living room and drinking tea with her from an antique pewter pot. How touching to know that others valued these small moments, just as I had.

* Remind the survivors how much they were loved. Back when I was a condolence newbie, I thought that went without saying. Let’s just say I’ve changed my mind. Among the most touching notes about my mother is one that concludes, “Whether or not you and your mom always saw eye to eye about everything, please know that she loved you very, very, very much. Even a stranger could see that.” Following this friend’s example, I like to tell survivors, “I remember how excited she was when she told me you were getting married” or “She always glowed when she talked about her children.”

This kind of observation is particularly important when a deceased loved one has been famously critical. I know a woman whose father told her, in no uncertain terms, that she would never succeed in her chosen profession. He later told others he was proud of her, yet he never told his daughter. Only after his death did she learn the truth.

* Don’t minimize the anguish of survivors. I once signed an office condolence card on which some whippersnapper had written, “Time heals all wounds.” No, no, no! Other variants on this unwelcome theme: “It’s a good thing he went quickly” (according to whom?) and “She’s in a better place now” (do the survivors believe in heaven?).

* If you’ve learned about grief the hard way, share your most useful insight. I often tell the bereaved what a wise elder told me: that relationships continue after death. Now that my both my parents are long gone, I see them more clearly and generously than I could during their lifetimes, when the shadows of childhood often blocked my view. I still miss them, of course. Yet at the same time I carry them with me.

I’ve posted some of my favourite condolences here for inspiration. Click here to read another related post, “The necessary art of condolence notes.” 


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

May 18, 2009 at 11:11AM

Having lost both of my parents over the last eight years, I have received many cards of condolence, and, being of ‘an age’, have had to write my fair share now. How true that a few kind words can make a difference; some made me cry, but the warmth was a bright spot during dark days. How, though, I detested the sentiment “it was for the best” or “no longer suffering” or even, “it gets easier” (it doesn’t).

A quote that I have shared with people comes from Ian Thomas (the rocker): it is the dedication of his novel to his late father: “Learning to love in absence, after the luxury of loving in presence”.

Rona Maynard
May 19, 2009 at 2:02 AM

Kathryn, you’re right: it doesn’t get easier. Even happy occasions have an undertone of sadness when you can’t share them with a lost loved one. Yet there’s some small comfort to be found in the ever deeper understanding that absence brings. I’ll remember the Ian Thomas quote and share it with others.

July 02, 2009 at 12:12PM

I fear the few condolence notes I’ve written would not have lived up to your rules. Unfortunately, recently I’ve had more opportunities to upgrade my technique. I’ve also become the recipient of a few.rnOn a side issue, my husband chose cremation, an end I abhored. Just the thought of it made me cringe.rnYet Monday as I carried his box of ashes into the house, I was overcome by the most comforting feeling — he was home again, safe, where I could resume looking after him.rnI sleep with his box of ashes near the foot of my bed.rnTrue separation will come in July when the family gathers to honour his wishes by scattering his ashes on the ocean.

Rona Maynard
May 17, 2009 at 8:08 PM

I’m very sorry to hear that you’ve lost your husband. When you described bringing his ashes home, I remembered holding a plastic bag of my mother’s ashes, turning it this way and that as if the perfect angle would reconstitute her. I wish you and your family a peaceful ceremony in July.

October 13, 2010 at 10:10PM

Even a poorly written – though well-intentioned condolence note is better than none. I lost a brother and a sister and many people – for whatever reason sent me no condolences. When I later saw or spoke to them it was agonizing for me because when I saw them not too long after, I I didn’t know whether or not they knew what had happened. Then I had to either tell them — usually to have them say, “Yes, I heard. I’m sorry.” or have a conversation with no mention of the deaths. What a horrible position to put someone in! I have never felt the same way about a number of people since that happened.

Caroline Zarlengo Sposto
November 23, 2010 at 7:07PM

The important thing is to say SOMETHING! I moved away from my home town years ago, but remained in touch with people. Last year my brother was killed in an accident. Due to a number of reasons (my mother has dementia, my sister was very ill, etc.) we didn’t have a service. NONE of my relatives – first cousins, aunts, uncles, godmother, godfather, etc. nor my former coworkers said ANYTHING to me to acknowledge his death. (These are people I have done many things for over the years.) Three months later, my became critically ill. I returned to my hometown for the final days of her life, and I ended up running into a few of these people. It was VERY STRANGE talking to them because I literally had no idea if they even knew my brother was dead. I felt I had to ask them if they knew, and then they all said, “Oh, Yes. I knew.” Their excuse was that they “Didn’t know what to say.” TRULY, if you don’t acknowledge a death, family members have no way of knowing that you’re aware it happened and this puts them in the terrible position of having to say “I’m not sure if you know, but my brother died a few months ago” when they run into you. It’s very painful to say that. When my sister died (I lost both of them within 3 months) they again did not acknowledge her death. I know it sounds hateful, but I have written all of these people off. I have no use for people like this. A POORLY WRITTEN CONDOLENCE IS BETTER THAN NONE. TRUST ME.

Rona Maynard
November 24, 2010 at 1:01 AM

I hear your anger and disappointment, Caroline. You’re absolutely right. One of the reasons to send condolences, no matter how awkwardly expressed, is to spare the bereaved additional suffering next time you encounter them. If you haven’t said anything, you’re forcing the bereaved to take care of you by repeating the news in case you haven’t heard. This is the time for others to be taking care of them.

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