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The Architecture of a Sympathy Note, Heart to Heart Communication

Your preference is a short note rather than a letter.  You may wish to write a brief note on a commercial condolence card.

Dear Keith,

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

Our family was deeply saddened today when we heard from Bill that you had lost your mother.

  1. Express your sympathy.

We are all thinking of you and send our heartfelt sympathy.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased or the bereaved or recount a memory about the deceased.

In the years we lived next door, your mother was a wonderful neighbor!  She was always warm, gracious and ready to lend a hand.  We feel fortunate to have known her.

  1. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase

With affection and deepest condolence.

Just a few words..samples of expressions that might capture your feelings

  • In this time of your deep loss, we extend to you our sorrow and tender understanding.
  • What a terrible shock.  It is difficult to convey our deep sadness but our thoughts and love are with you.
  • Feeling very close to you and sharing your sorrow.  Will call soon, once your heart has had a little rest.
  • Grief is a heartache that slowly heals.  Your lovely daughter will be sadly missed, but she will always be in our/your heart.
  • Our sympathies.  May the gentle sunshine of memories be a light in this hour of darkness.
  • Your dear grandfather is gone from our touch, but never our hearts.  The loss is more ours than his.  Let us remember him through the echo of his laughter.
  • Please accept deepest sympathies.  The healing will require courage and patience.  Our prayers/love/thought are with you in this time of grief.
  • We have just learned with profound sorrow of the death of your mother and send sincere condolences.
  • Our thoughts and love are with you.  We have so many wonderful memories of times with your brother.  He was a very precious gift to us all.
  • You are remembered with warmth, sympathy, and understanding in this time of sorrow.
  • I am so sorry to hear of the death of your father.  Please accept my profound sympathy and my prayers.  God bless you.
  • Thinking of you at this time and extending our heartfelt understanding and sympathy.  We have lost a wonderful friend.
  • We are saddened by the news of Ronald’s passing.  Please accept our sincere sympathies.  Our professional/business community has lost a valuable and respected member and we have lost a cherished friend.  We will miss him deeply.

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

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The Architecture of a Condolence Letter, Heart to Heart Communication

A written expression of condolence is a powerful, loving gesture. It is becoming a lost practice despite it’s unique ability to provide comfort. It is worth the effort.  Writing allows you to carefully reflect and craft your loving message.  This is an expression of what you want to say, the sentiments you want to share.  Form and format are clearly secondary.    Once you have your thoughts, feelings and memories in focus, you might use this format to help put them into a structure.  Perhaps this format will help stimulate your thinking and organize your thoughts.

  1. Acknowledge the loss. Note how you learned about the news.   Indicate dismay at hearing about the loss.  It sets the purpose and tone of the letter.
  2. Express your sympathy. Don’t hesitate to use the word death.  Share your own sadness to remind them they are not completely alone in their suffering.
  3. Note special qualities of the deceased. They may be special attributes, personality characteristics, contributions.  Remind the bereaved that the deceased was appreciated by others.
  4. Recount a memory about the deceased… how the deceased evoked your appreciation, affection or respect; how they touched and influenced your life; humorous incidents.
  5. Note special qualities of the bereaved…strong feelings of inadequacy often surface and the bereaved can beel shaky about their own basic abilities. At the time, it can cause them to doubt their most basic abilities.  And their usual capacity or self-appreciation and self-love.  Remind them of their traids that serve them through adversity in the past such as resilience, patience, competence, religious devotion, optimisim or trusting nature.
  6. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement. If there is a genuine desire to help, make a specific offer. The numbness of early grief can often blank out the general offers of help.  Once offered, be sure to follow through.
  7. Close with a thought word or phrase.

Suggestions:

  1. My affection respects to you and yours.
  2. My affection respects to you and yours.
  3. Our life is with you always.
  4. You are in my thoughts and prayers
  5. You know you have my deepest sympathy and my love and friendship always.
  6. My heart and my tears are with you.
  7. We share in your grief and send you our love.
  8. We offer our affectionate sympathy and many beautiful memories
  9. My thoughts are with you now, and I send you my deepest sympathy.
  10. We all join in sending you our heartfelt love.

Sample: When you knew the deceased:

Dear Keith

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

My heart ached when Tim called this morning and I heard the news of Ruth’s death.  Though not unexpected, the final word was still felt as a blow.

  1. Express your sympathy

Words seem so inadequate, but with this letter comes my heart filled with love and sympathy on the loss of your beloved wife.  I loved her too.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased.

Ruth was a vibrant, talented, caring woman and dearly loved by everyone whose life she touched.  But for me, she was even more.  She was a rare and cherished friend.  Through our friendship, my vision of beauty and possibilities of life grew.

  1. Recount a memory about the decease.

As I write, flooded with precious memories, I am recalling the day when Ruth and I were driving to the cost for what we thought would be a lazy afternoon of beachcombing.  Instead, we had a flt tire.  You’ve never seen a pair of more fumble-fingered, crease covered laughing clowns than we were that day, but we did it!  And we made it to the beach just in time for a glorious sunset.

  1. Note special qualities of the bereaved.

I know you will miss her deeply, but I also know that you recognize the blessings of the beautiful years you shared.  You were always a source of strength and courage to Ruth.  I recall her once saying that your love of life and enduring optimism brought her closer to God.  I trust these same qualities will help support and guide you during this oh-so-difficult time.

  1. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement.

You know you have my sympathy and my friendship and I would be grateful if you would turn to me for any help I might give.  I’ll call this week end to see if there’s anything I can do.

  1. Close with a thought word or phrase.

My prayers and thoughts are with you

Sample: When you didn’t know the person who died

Dear Keith

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

This morning Mr Moore told us the sad news of your wife’s sudden death.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased.

I extend my heartfelt sympathy to you and your family.  The loss must touch you very deeply as you face these first numbing days of grief.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased.
  2. Recount a memory about the deceased…

Although I never met your wife, I was always impressed with the loving mention of her in your conversations.

  1. Note special qualities of the bereaved

While our relationship has been largely in the office, I have seen you handle challenging situations time and again.  During this difficult period, I know you will draw on these same deep personal resources so many of us have come to respect and admire. 

  1. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement.

During your absence, we will address your…………………

  1. Close with a thought word or phrase.

Keep in mind that this office is filled with people who care about you and are thinking about you in your sorrow.

Sample: The most famous of all condolence letters
…to Mrs Lydia Bixby.  Note the elements in action.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the war Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.  I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.  But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.  I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

  1. Lincoln

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

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Heart to Heart Communication: What to Say/ What Not to Say

Honing consoling skills for meaningful friendships…

The Art of Consoling Conversation:  swift to hear, slow to speak.

The silence of listening has a clear message, “I’m right here.  I care and I’m with you.  I’m not sure what to say, but I’m ready to listen”

Real listening comes from the heart because that is where sympathy and healing begins.  It’s a silent way of sharing in the moment but is also a way of helping the bereaved to find their own solutions.

The best things you can possibly say:

Frequently people avoid mentioning the deceased on anniversaries and other special occasions, thinking it will cause sadness and depression.  Talk about their partner and continue his memory.  There is comfort to survivors knowing that their lost ones are not forgotten, that their past life experience is valued.  Remember the birthday of their partner.  Remember anniversaries.

Healing conversation starters:

  1. I’m so sorry.  Was your father ill for a long time?
  2. I am at a loss to know what to say, but I sense how difficult this must be for you.
  3. I have been thing about you and wanted to know how/what you’ve been doing.
  4. This must be a bewildering and incredibly complicated time.  It must be very hard for you (and your family”
  5. What it like for you these days?  How are you coping?
  6. Do you feel like talking for a while?

Suggestions for positive communication:

  1. Perhaps another time…if they aren’t ready to talk or it’s not opportune.
  2. Listen without judgement… people are still sorting out their thinking and feelings
  3. Focus your attention…eye contact, learn forward, nod
  4. Avoid interrupting
  5. Maintain a positive outlook…mention the positive qualities an strengths about them
  6. Rational answers are irrational…Death can never be explained away with logic.
  7. Suggestions are better than advice.
  8. Share, don’t compare, experiences.
  9. I’d like to do something to help…give me a job.
  10. I can only image how hard it is/how awful you feel.
  11. I miss him, too.
  12. Spend Sunday with us, we’d love to have you.
  13. I remember when…tell stories about the person who has died.
  14. He’d be really proud of you.
  15. I’m going to take the children out for the whole day.
  16. You’re doing a great job.
  17. Shall I come round and bring dinner with me?
  18. I’ll do the driving.
  19. I’m so very sorry.

Top things NOT to say to someone who’s been widowed- and why

  1. I know how you feel.  (You don’t unless you’ve been widowed…and everyone is different.)
  2. At least he had many good years. It’s a blessing in disguise. (She is now alone.)
  3. You’re being so brave.  (She’s not.  She’s just getting on with life.)
  4. Call me if you need anything. (She won’t be able to.)
  5. When my dad died, my grandmother got cancer, I was divorced etc….(It’s not the same.)
  6. Don’t cry; try to keep control of yourself.  (Everyone grieves differently.  It takes longer than you’d expect.  She’s not enjoying it.  This is not her choice.)
  7. You should be resting, taking it easy, being kind to yourself. Don’t do anything for a year.  (There are still life demands.)

Tears…

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone Who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007  (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

Tears…The chemistry of tears is distinct to stress.  It’s an intense physical release that’s needed at the time.The etiquette of tears is NOT handing the tissue or handkerchief.  This rush to stop the process is more about the discomfort to the observer and only adds more stress and embarrassment to the tearful one.  Best is to just sit quietly through the moment and let him/her work through to conclusion.   Placing

The etiquette of tears is NOT handing the tissue or handkerchief.  This rush to stop the process is more about the discomfort to the observer and only adds more stress and embarrassment to the tearful one.  Best is to just sit quietly through the moment and let him/her work through to conclusion.   Placing tissue or such nearby makes it available but doesn’t make a subtle request that the flow stop.Someone mentioned “The 8 seconds of grief” that happens with time.

Someone mentioned “The 8 seconds of grief” that happens with time.  Spurts of grief can swell despite the passing of time and are expressed in an 8 second experience.   I noticed this little phenomena with the passing of my mother.  Something would touchingly remind me of her.  I would tear up and it would pass. I didn’t dissolve into a messy puddle of emotion.  The emotion would swell up and, in roughly 8 seconds, it would subside.   Just go with the moment without fret.  We are emotional beings with heart.

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There Are Many Kinds of Friends to a Widow

Be a sensitive friend… Understand the new context of your friendship.  Don’t disappear because she isn’t anxious to connect.   Be mindful that you might have to adjust your actions to help her adjust to her changed world.  There’s a different way at looking at almost everything.  It requires a lot of effort to address the new and emotional pain of dealing with loss.

New friends who don’t know your partner.  They help you move on with new interests, new attachments and personal growth.

Couple friends with social history…These folks can be comforting and reassuring.  It can also be hard to watch two people live and grow together in ways you never will.

Married friends who aren’t getting along well.  It’s painful to see their conflict when you experience loss.

Divorced friends who share the sense of loss but who deal with negative dynamics.

Well meaning family solutions:  “Hey Mom, Here’s an idea!  Spend more time with the grandchildren!”  Caring for kids requires an outflow of energy and stamina. Babysitting is work!  Brief visits with children can be good reminders of life worth living.

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone Who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007  (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)