'Don't say nothing': Effective ways offer sympathy to someone who's grieving

  • Living
  • Sunday, 23 Jun 2024

If you want to express your sympathy to someone who is mourning, you shouldn't hesitate. — SEBASTIAN WILLNOW/dpa

EXPRESSING your sympathy to someone who has just lost a loved one is a sensitive matter requiring tact – and fraught with pitfalls. Two experts give tips on what you should – and shouldn't – do.

Take the relationships into account

In accordance with your relationships to the deceased and the bereaved, "express your sincere condolences, heartfelt sympathy, memories of and esteem for the deceased, quotations, general thoughts on leave-taking, death, grief, and offer help," advises Thomas Schafer-Elmayer, an etiquette expert in Vienna.

Write a letter, card or perhaps an email

"The classic way to condole with someone is to write a personal letter on stationery," says Fabian Lenzen, chairman of the Funeral Directors Guild of Berlin and Brandenburg.

If you buy a pre-inscribed sympathy card in a stationery shop, you should personalise it by adding a few lines of your own. "The less well you knew the deceased – and know the bereaved – the briefer, more cautious, neutral and empathetic your words should be," says Schafer-Elmayer.

Lenzen recommends taking a cue from previous communications with the bereaved, or from how you learned of the death. If you were informed, say, via WhatsApp, then it's all right to send condolences via WhatsApp too – but not if you were mailed a card by someone you don't communicate with digitally.

Having said that, "an email, WhatsApp or text message is better than nothing," says Schafer-Elmayer, adding that "condolences are appropriate in business relationships as well."

Call and visit – in certain circumstances

If a distant relative, acquaintance, neighbour or co-worker is involved, your closeness to the deceased/bereaved should be your guide. A phone call, in addition to condolences in writing, may be apt, says Schafer-Elmayer.

Lenzen advises someone who's uncertain what to do to look at the sítuation from the bereaved's perspective: "If my best friend's partner passes away and I know they're sitting at home alone and getting no moral support, I'll naturally call and ask, 'Hey, why don't I simply stop by?'"

Show solicitude, but don't overdo it

"The closer you are to the family or company – for example if a client/customer or their spouse has died – the more fitting it is to show solicitude beyond a letter of condolence," remarks Schafer-Elmayer.

It's inappropriate, however, if – contrary to the family's wishes – you bring or send a large flower arrangement or the like to the funeral. "Or if you – especially as an individual in an expression of particular solicitousness – bring an exceptionally large wreath that dwarfs that of the family," Lenzen says.

If the family has requested donations for a certain cause instead of flowers, you should honour that request.

Avoid opening wounds – but don't stay silent

Although you may mean well, you can overshoot the mark when condoling with someone. A letter of sympathy that's several pages long can open wounds, as can long phone conversations, warns Schafer-Elmayer.

The bereaved person "must then retell what happened, which they may not want to do since it always churns them up inside," Lenzen explains. "So some restraint is definitely in order."

But simply expressing your heartfelt condolences is never sufficient, in Schafer-Elmayer's view.

Many people "say nothing at all to avoid saying something wrong," points out Lenzen, who says this is the biggest mistake of all. After all, the bereaved may have a need for words of comfort, or simply expect someone to get in touch.

And if their cultural background is different from your own, try to find out what's appropriate in their culture. – dpa

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