October 5, 2016

“A letter of condolence to a friend is one of the obligations of friendship.”


The Art of Condolence by Bruce Feiler in the New York Times

Offering a written expression of condolence (from the Latin word condolere, to grieve or to suffer with someone) used to be a staple of polite society. 'A letter of condolence may be abrupt, badly constructed, ungrammatical — never mind,' advised the 1960 edition of Emily Post. 'Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.'

But these days, as Facebooking, Snapchatting or simply ignoring friends has become fashionable, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddied at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. 'Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.'"

One mark of this change is in the card industry. Just over two and a half million Americans die every year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and we buy 90 million sympathy cards annually, a spokeswoman for Hallmark said. But 90 percent of those cards are bought by people over 40.

For those who are inexperienced or out of practice in comforting someone in grief, what are some tips for mastering (or at least not humiliating yourself in) the lost art of condolence?

the one overwhelming thing I heard was it’s perfectly acceptable to admit you don’t know what to say. One rabbi said, “Admitting you’re at a loss for words is far more caring and helpful than writing pithy statements like ‘he’s in a better place’ or ‘your child was so perfect, God wanted her to sit beside him.’”

The condolence notes that moved him most, he said, were from strangers who shared a recollection of his father. “That was important for me because I realized his place in the world,” he said. “At the time, you’re only thinking of your own relation to the loved one. You realize this person had impact beyond you. That was comforting.”

One bit of quicksand worth avoiding is the temptation to say you know what the other person is going through. Everyone experiences grief differently. ..“The temptation is to bring it back to yourself, but this is not about you,”

When did people become so squeamish,” one friend griped. “All the euphemisms make my skin crawl.”

5. GET REAL. By contrast, grievers hear so many vacuous phrases that a little straight talk can often be a welcome relief. ... The model outlined by Millicent Fenwick in “Vogue’s Book of Etiquette,” published in 1948. First an expression of sympathy (“I was so sorry to hear...”). Second a word about the deceased. Finally an expression of comfort.A little bluntness goes a long way.  First an expression of sympathy (“I was so sorry to hear...”). Second a word about the deceased. Finally an expression of comfort.

“This all makes perfect sense,” she said, “but I think my favorite note upon the death of my brother was from one of my closest friends. ‘My dear Jane,’ he wrote. ‘IT STINKS.’”

6. FACEBOOK IS NOT ENOUGH These days many people first learn of the death of a friend’s loved one via social media. The instinct to post a comment or dash off an email is understandable. But everyone I spoke with agreed on one point: Even heartfelt gestures like these do not replace a condolence note. A stern reminder from Ms. Fenwick still seems apt: “A letter of condolence to a friend is one of the obligations of friendship.”

7. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON SYMPATHY While writing immediately is comforting, it’s not necessary. Many mourners are overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath, and a number told me they especially appreciated cards that arrived weeks or even months after the death....Even with these tips, many people may still feel daunted with the pressure to come up with the right words. In that case, send someone else’s words. Mr. Young recommended three poems: “Clearances” by Seamus Heaney, “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden or “Infirm” by Gwendolyn Brooks.
Posted by Jill Fallon at October 5, 2016 12:00 PM | Permalink