Thoughts on Expressions of Sympathy
It is not always easy to figure out how to give the best expressions of sympathy. Peg Cromer is someone who kept me sane during my own grief journey, and I asked her to reflect on advice she would give regarding sympathy acknowledgement. She has also experienced the sudden death of a husband. Following are her thoughts:
Expressions of Sympathy—What Grief Taught Me
by Peg Cromer
Being a spiritual director and an RN who had taught grief and bereavement, I decided that I could closely notice my own experiences after my husband’s sudden death, in order to learn the answer to that question I had asked myself many times. What is the best thing to do or say to one who has experienced tragedy?
The bottom line is that it is not just about what one says to the bereaved, but where the bereaved is within themselves at that given moment – critical information not known by the consoler (and often not known by the bereaved themselves). Expressions of sympathy that were consoling one day were often disquieting the next. With this said, here are some of the experiences that I remember. Please note that all reactions are unique to the individual and the circumstances of the death.
- There is an immediate recognition of authenticity of what is said as opposed to hearing the socially acceptable response or the “careful” greeting. Authenticity is recognized, appreciated and covers all other errors in timing.
- The initial numbness after tragic event is so profound that the silent, unobtrusive presence of another, acting as a faithful servant to all the details such as cleaning the house, making lunch, and answering the phone and door is a gift beyond expression.
- There is no space for someone else’s thoughts or grief, only for expressions of sympathy that honor your difficult journey right now. It is hard enough to handle your own grief, let alone dealing with theirs. Please, definitely do not offer long explanations for why you did not send a card, call, or go to the services! And make sure your efforts to help are really needed and not to provide for your own needs.
- Avoid trite comforts or theories about death, including religious or spiritual phrases. Everyone’s concepts are different; and initially, it doesn’t help at all and can be hurtful or confusing. This stifles (or potentiates) anger that is a critical part of the grieving process. Life hurts right now!
- Saying wonderful things about the deceased is often not helpful, since no one can know the relationship between two people despite outward appearances, and anger may be brewing. All that is too intimate and personal to be shared now. Instead of saying, “He was always there to help others” or “I know how much he loved you,” consider something like, “I will hold you in my heart as you travel this difficult journey.” Focus on your care and love for the ones still living.
- If you have gone through a very closely parallel experience, let the bereaved know that; but save your stories until they come to you to talk.
- “How are you?” is too big a question. “What do you need?” is even more impossible. “How are you today?” conveys concern that is manageable. It also allows for meeting the person where they are at that moment.
- Everyone needs a few people that they can call 24X7. Instead of saying, “Call me if you need anything;” I would recommend that you ask if they do have someone they can call at any hour of the night and someone who they feel free to talk to and be crazy with. If they say, “No” or “I guess – I don’t know,” then write down your number if you can be that person.
- “How are you doing it?” “You are so brave;” “I don’t think I could do it,” all seem like strange comments; as if the bereaved volunteered for this assignment. They don’t know how they are doing it and don’t feel very brave; the fact is that they had no choice in the matter. A simple, “You are handling this well” or “You look good” is appreciated if it is true.
- There is nothing more disquieting than another’s pity or realizing that the sight of you (thus your reminder to them of your loss) darkened their otherwise happy mood.
Let me further explain this last comment since it occurs for so long after the death event. During a relatively normal or easier day, it is so typical to run into someone, say in the grocery store. When they see you, immediately their face becomes sullen and they come over to see how you are doing. (You had been fine a moment ago before seeing them).
What others quickly lose track of is that it has been 4 months, 6 months, 12 months or more since the death. They have not lived it; you have lived with it every moment of every day. They relive their grief at the sight of you as if it occurred last week, only to unwittingly take you back to your grief and/or keep you stuck in your grief for longer than necessary.
In talking to others, many single people have learned to go out to eat by themselves or enjoy a movie by themselves where no one knows their story; but the thought of running into acquaintances and engendering the “Oh, you are alone, poor you” type of reaction keeps them from venturing too far from home.
Accept their change of life status within yourself. Deal with your own sadness and fear that it could happen to you on your own time. Although it is true that others move on before the bereaved does, begin with a normal greeting in a normal vocal tone. Ask about the other and/or their life without clouding it in gloom. Only when you get a sense of their mood can you join them where they are and walk with them in supportive love.
And two more things:
- Befriend the widow(er), doing things with them (out to eat, etc) without your spouse or other couples. Recognize that it is a couple’s world and their entire social support system is now often uncomfortable and therefore not supportive in spite of good intentions. A routine weekly breakfast or coffee at the same safe place gives them some routine support to count on in their lonely chaos.
- And, never ever push the bereaved to dive into another relationship or activity in their lives to “fill in” for what was lost. It may take years, but always accept their life plans and time frame. Grief is holy ground that must be honored. Concern regarding depression or complicated grief should be referred to a counselor.
For information about written expressions of sympathy read the article
Words to Express Sympathy
or see my
made with photos I took during my own grief journey, which make them unique expressions of sympathy.
If you would like to learn more about the grief journey, consider reading
Seasons of Solace, which also makes an excellent
sympathy inspirational gift.
Struggling to find the perfect sympathy gift? So was Renee Wood, so she designed her own. Read my interview with Renee, Founder of The Comfort Company.
Other articles related to expressions of sympathy: Return from Expressions of Sympathy to journey-through-grief homepage
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