Episode 106: November 30, 2009
by Trent Armstrong
This is a particularly serious look at manners today. I'll be talking about the polite thing to say when someone dies.
What to Say When Someone Dies
A few weeks ago, a friend emailed in and asked me to write about offering condolences. She recently lost her baby girl after 3 days of life and the silence of her friends and acquaintances about the situation has been disquieting for her. Please allow me to take a few moments to discuss the manners surrounding how to interact with someone who has lost someone they loved.
Be Prepared to Say Something
The most important thing to know is that there is no type of loss that shouldn't be acknowledged. Whether the person you know has lost a close family member, a friend, or even a pet, your condolences may be the one bright spot in that person's day. Please do not assume that someone else will step in and relieve you from the difficult job of offering your condolences. Yes, it is difficult to think about bringing up a subject that you feel will cause your friend more pain. However, avoiding the subject altogether and acting like life should just go on is a disservice to the memory of the one who has died.
Most of the time the person who has lost his or her loved one really wants to remember; they want to remember the good times and the unique traits the deceased had that made them special. In a way, it is a sort of memorial every time they are remembered.
I once was in my grandfather's kitchen while he called someone whose husband had recently passed away. My grandfather did have many years of experience making those kinds of comforting phone calls, but the simplicity and ease with which he discussed the man's passing was inspiring. He expressed his deepest sympathy and moved quickly to what a kind and thoughtful man his friend had been. He then asked how the woman's last few moments with her husband had been. Finally, he concluded the brief call with a memory of the deceased and an offer of assistance should he be needed.
What Not to Say When Someone Dies
I learned from my grandfather that trying to avoid the harsh reality of the death only builds tension. I also saw that over sympathizing sounded disingenuous. I was greatly moved by his genuine approach to the situation and the comfortable way in which he made conversation. My grandfather didn't promise that everything would be fine or mention that time heals all wounds. He knew those kinds of clichés would only cheapen the feelings of loss his friend was experiencing.
How to Act When Someone Dies
There will be times outside the funeral when you will see your friend or family member whose loved one has died. Don't avoid the situation completely. The first time you see the person go ahead and offer your condolences. If you avoid the situation, you will either make the other person uncomfortable or lead them to believe that you haven't yet heard the news.
If they feel led to tell you something you already know, that will make the situation even more awkward. Quickly apologize for either of those offenses and start over immediately.
A hug, a pat on the back, or a strong handshake are more than appropriate in these situations. Keep it moderate, but don't be afraid to offer comfort. Then you should offer your heartfelt sympathy and, should you be so inclined, you may offer assistance with anything from taking care of kids to yard work or small errands.
The next time you see or talk with your friend make time to ask a few questions about the one they have lost. Talking about the good times and the bad times are both part of remembering. Your friend will be grateful for the time of remembrance and will value your friendship.
Should You Send a Card When Someone Dies?
It is important to make at least some form of contact when your acquaintance experiences a loss. If you are not able to visit in person or you're just not ready to make a phone call, you might send them a sympathy card.
You can do all the things I have already discussed when you send a card. Mention your deepest sympathy, express your fond memories of the deceased and, again, if you're inclined, offer some assistance. Please do not go into details of your own life or current situations. Maintain focus in your note and keep it brief.
The card could go something like this: "I am deeply saddened by your loss. Please accept my condolences. Jim was such a wonderful person and will be greatly missed. Don't hesitate to get in touch if there is anything I can do for you during this difficult time."
Remember that it should not be about you. Keep the exchange brief, but make yourself available. And, finally, respect your friend's feelings. Don't cheapen the situation by trying to move past it too quickly.
Thank you for joining me for another of The Modern Manners Guy's Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Polite Life.
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