CONDOLENCES & SYMPATHY ETIQUETTE — SOCIAL DISTANCE — COVID-19
It’s been my normal to send my condolences through a sympathy card, but there are none to be found anywhere with so many of us dying. Online or in the usual places such as CVS or Stop & Shop. For people I was close to, I call or email their nearest surveyor, or who I know the person through.
Before COVID-19, for my dearest friends and family members I’ll arrive at the surveyor’s door baring bounty and pitch in by doing errands and making phone calls, and try to make myself useful. “What can I do to help? I’ll ask and there is always something even if it’s walking the deceased’s dog or arranging the flowers, but these are not normal times. I’ve had to take pen to paper and find a stamp.
What words of sympathy can I use to ease the surveyor through their tragic loss in these troubled times?
Dear Jeremy, I am sorry for your loss, or losses as the case may be. A new normal, a now normal, a forever normal, indeed, is called for now, today. More than ever your words on paper will be registered and stored in the recipient's heart and mind.
In offering first words of condolence in the first paragraph--here are examples highlighted--mentioning the deceased by name; as it is most comforting to use the name of the deceased often:
- I am (Sharon and I are) deeply sorry for your tragic loss. Bob was my best guy friend, I couldn't have had a better friend.
- It is with a heavy heart that I (George and I) write to send you my (our) deepest sympathy. Charlotte was the kindest, dearest friend and neighbor from that first day when she arrived after we moved in twenty years ago with blueberry muffins, to only last week when she picked up our curbside grocery order.
- A few warm words to say how sorry I am (we are) for your great loss. Charles had to be one of the wittiest raconteurs I've ever met, always with a friendly smile and an amusing anecdote to start the conversation going.
- Our whole family is mourning your great loss. It is our great loss, too. Thanksgiving won't be the same without Aunt Susanne, always curious to learn what the kids and their own families were up to and joyfully praising their many accomplishments.
If you can, tell a story about the deceased that illustrates their character, loyalty, sense of humor, honesty, valor, or good disposition. Here's one of mine:
- One of my favorite stories about Harry is the time he found a woman's wallet in the ATM entrance to his bank, where he had gone to take out money for the long holiday weekend. It was late on a Friday afternoon after the bank had closed. He ran out looking left and right, but he didn't see anyone in sight. Leaving the wallet where he found it wouldn't have been safe, so Harry took it home and found her name and address on her driver's license, called 411 and was connected to her house phone. The woman was grateful that she had answered the phone because she had been on her way out the door to do an errand without realizing that she didn't have her wallet. Long story short, he left the wallet in a manilla envelope in his porch mailbox, she picked it up while he was out, and two weeks later he received a hand written thank-you note and a gift certificate to her restaurant. They met, they dated, they fell in love.
Start by thinking of a memorable time you spent with the deceased:
- Alison was an amazing person, full of surprises, and truly one of the most capable, unassuming people I've ever known. Once I took her out on a sailfish, I was at the helm because she had never been on a sailfish and said that she didn't know how to sail. We were curious about a particular cove and our goal was to find it. Once there we had a swim before starting back to the dock in the harbor, but just as we were entering the bay a fierce gust of wind came out of the northeast and swept us out to sea. The sky suddenly became dark as black clouds headed our way and I had a really bad cramp and couldn't move, Alison without saying a word took the helm and the jib and brought us safely back to the dock.
By the way, if you don't have a personal tale to tell you can go right to the final paragraph praising the deceased:
- End with words of praise for the deceased. "As a working mother I could have never finished my thesis and kept my job, if it hadn't been for Susanne's support, she was a real friend pitching in when my son was sick and I couldn't miss another day at work, and helping me through postpartum depression and rough patches in my marriage. Susanne was always there for me, never judgmental, though always helping me question my values. I don't know how I could have gotten through the early years of parenting without a true friend, as true as Susanne.
- Conclude by writing something such as this: Gordon joins me in saying we are (deeply) sorry for you and your family, and hope that you will receive the comfort and strength to bear this tremendous loss.
A couple of final points:
- Ideally, a letter of condolence should be hand-written without delay, "to bolster the surveyor for the funeral," which gives a sense of convivial urgency. If you missed the boat, receiving words of sympathy after the funeral are also greatly appreciated. Not that there are funerals these days, but there may be memorial services and burials eventually. Sometimes, I think, those later letters are the hardest to write because they express the deepest sentiments. The writer has taken a lot of time to mourn.
- A widow or widower would be happy to read a praise of their happy marriage; that you thought their marriage was perfect in it's happiness. An unforgettable happiness that would survive always in your memory, and be an inspiration to you and all who knew the couple.
- Be ware: If you're not totally sure of the recipient's religious belief, steer clear of expressing your faith. The condolence letter is not about the writer. The surveyor could become angry and annoyed by any hint of proselytizing.
- In the event that the condolence letter is to a member of the your staff or to the staffer's family, the letter can be printed out on office stationery.
- Signing off "With dearest love," to someone you you've known for a long time or "Alex joins me in sending our love (to you and your family)," are sincere; or more formally, "Kindest regards," or simply, "Sincerely."
As of this writing on May 4, 2020,
social distance takes precedence
over religious rituals. With good reason.
Never has there been a more important
time to write a letter of condolence.