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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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Grieving is a Fundamental Process of Life

We do not choose it.  It rather chooses us.

It’s not a one-time event.  It’s a road we must travel on.

It doesn’t follow clock time. It adheres to deeper rhythms.

Regrets are common, thought of incompletion and unfinished business, struggles unresolved.

These are illusory, clingy thoughts, but you can’t wrestle them to the ground and stamp them out.

As they emerge, you can see them, and let them go

And do that each time they come back to visit.

Each of us has our light, what makes us loving and loveable. Each of us has our dark places, how we grapple with fear and pain-what makes us unbearable, at times even to ourselves.

Each of us has our dark places, how we grapple with fear and pain-what makes us unbearable, at times even to ourselves. We have our griminess and our glory.

We have our griminess and our glory.  But what are we, really?  We are neither.

But what are we, really?  We are neither.

We are not any of those parts.  We are all of those parts.

So, when you think of the loved one who has passed, embrace the whole person.

Frank Ostaseski of Metta Institute as reported by Barry Boyce, Mindful Magazine, August 2016, pg 10.

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Resting vs. Stuck

There are times when resting is healing.  There are times when resting becomes stuck.

Stuck is a control issue.  Stress causes a sense of powerlessness so our minds go into a heavy-duty control mode.  Holding tight to what is known feels safer.  To let go might feel like powerless chaos.  Our minds trick us into thinking that by holding on, we are in control of something we cannot control-the loss of a loved one. It takes conscious choice in dealing with reality.  Control is actually letting go.

Self awareness:

Has self preservation turned into self-absorption?

Who am I really?  Am I extremely intolerant of others response to me?

Do I demand sympathy? Do I have difficulty with anything new?

St Francis prayer:  “Accept the things you cannot change and have the courage to change the things you can.”

“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.

“When a Spouse Dies, What I didn’t Know about helping myself and others through grief,” by Barbara R Wheeler, DSW, Plain Sight Publishing, 2012.

“Transitions, Making sense of life’s changes” by William Bridges, Lifelong books, 2004.