Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
What do you say to your friends who are grieving after a loss?
Last October, Bruce Feiler wrote a helpful guide to offering condolences. His column in the New York Times "The Art of Condolence" gave good advice on what to write in a condolence note, a genre many people may not know how to write. Maybe younger people especially, since Feiler reports a Hallmark statistic that 90% of the sympathy cards bought annually are bought by people older than 40. But all of us struggle to know what to say in the face of terrible loss.
Feiler discussed seven key bits of advice--
Feiler was explaining how to write a proper condolence note, and I recommend his column when you need to write a note of condolence after a death.
But his advice applies to offering condolences in person, too, when friends have experienced a major loss. And I’d like to consider his points with that context in mind.
One of the best bits of advice I ever got for expressing sympathy came from Blake Robbins. The actor and director was filming The Sublime and Beautiful, a difficult, powerful film about people’s reactions after tragedy—in this case a family’s children being killed by a drunk driver.
Blake told the story of his own experience with a family member’s death and shared a line he uses in one scene in the film, when the children’s father meets his best friend for the first time since the funeral. After the platitudes and false comforts and outright untruths that so many people have fumbled through, the friend’s single statement is remarkably powerful and comforting. Sitting across the table from the silently grieving father, his friend says
I don’t know what to say”
I've since seen the same response suggested by others for dealing with a friend who is dying and for other moments of great grief.
So powerful a statement because so bluntly true. Perhaps comforting because it expresses shared human despair in the face of major loss.
It's okay to say ” I don’t know what to say”
Being positive in the face of terrible events isn’t easy, of course. But remembering something good from before can remind us that we had something wonderful and valued. It hurts so much because what we lost was so good. So telling a specific story can remind all the mourners of the positive effects this person’s life had on many people, what she did for us or how she brought us together.
I find this one tough because I want to express empathy for those who are also grieving. But Feiler recommends not giving any indication that you know what the other person is going through, and he explains it in a way that I get. As Feiler says, simply
“Everyone experiences grief differently.”
I might be feeling despair while the person I’m comforting is feeling angry. You might be wanting to lash out at someone, while I’m finding it helpful to throw myself into a cause. Another might even be feeling relief after a long battle.
So share your sadness, but don’t presume it’s the same emotion others are feeling.
And don't judge.
Death is death, and using euphemisms doesn’t change that. Calling what happened anything other than what it is minimizes the loss. The worst D is denial. So acknowledge the truth of what happened, the reality of the loss. Which goes along with the next advice for offering condolences
Tell it like it is. Be straight about how awful is. Acknowledge that it sucks. There is no happy face to put on grief, so don’t try to paint one on
If your real friends are experiencing real grief, it’s not enough to hit the like button or a sad or angry emoji. If not giving the personal, written condolence that Feiler recommends, at least go beyond hitting the easy buttons Feiler mimics
“Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.” --Bruce Feiler, "The Art of Condolence"
Make a point of saying something the first time you see the mourner. When you see another in pain, offer your condolences—name the loss, share your positive memories, admit that you don’t know what to say. Comfort your friends in ways that real friends can.
The grief doesn’t end the day after the loss. People continue to hurt long after, especially those most directly affected. And expressions of sympathy are always welcome.
Condolences don’t have to take the form of just words either, whether in writing or in person. Condolences can take the form of actions that will help those who’ve suffered the loss. As Feiler suggests, when words come hard,
Take action in a way that supports the grieving, and continue to take action. Do something to help. Take a load off of others. Offer sustenance. Month later the pain will still be felt, so stay in touch, keep reaching out, don't forget, and keep doing something.
In the end, we comfort each other and offer condolences because that’s what friends do for friends. And hearing from each other after we suffer a great loss shows us we’re not alone. We still have a community surrounding us. The community can still support us.
With the death last Monday of Leonard Cohen, I want to let that great songwriter have the last word. I chose not the perhaps expected and too-often-covered song “Hallelujah,” beautiful as it is. Not the also appropriate and lyrical song “Anthem.”
Instead from Cohen’s last album You Want It Darker, I’ll point to the need we have for each other in moments of darkness--I hope you'll listen carefully to the lyrics in the recording of Leonard Cohen “If I Didn’t Have Your Love”