I Just Don’t Know What to Say

Sympathy

Often, just as important as a special gift, are the words that accompany it. Especially words to acknowledge loss. We want to say something meaningful and comforting. Signing a name to the card isn’t enough.

Expressing condolence is not easy, even for those of us who write for a living. How to find the words without sounding clichéd or cloying? Here are a few suggestions.

Share a Story

Share a story, a memory that defines who the person was. This needn’t be long or involved. For example, my father was respected in our town, seen as a natural teacher and a go-to guy. When he died, one neighbor wrote how my dad had taught him how to ride a bike when he was a little boy. Another wrote how my dad got him a first job at a country club. Both of these were things about my dad that I had never known.

My mother was lively and warm, popular with my friends. In a condolence, one friend told me how she used to love coming to my house after school because “your mother always made me feel that I was just the one she wanted to see.”

An Affirmation Even for Loss

Along with expressing your sympathy, offer a positive expression that is both personal and encouraging. You can acknowledge that the person you’re writing to was a good daughter, a loyal wife. You can express admiration for her strength during a difficult time. Recently, I wrote to a business colleague whose wife passed away after spending the last year in a nursing home. He felt guilty about this placement. But he also visited her very frequently – even when she no longer knew him. I wrote my condolences, adding a short note, saying how lucky his wife was to have had a devoted and attentive husband.

In General, Be Specific

It’s well-meaning to offer help. But often we do this in the most generic way. We say, “If you ever need anything . . .” and leave it at that.

Yes, those who are going through a difficult time need something. Along with a thoughtful gift might come a thoughtful promise. A meeting soon for lunch? An offer to share in the care-giving for someone who needs a break. Assertive nurturing, we could call this. Find your own right words to show you care.

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