I've mentioned the blog A Cup of Jo (one of my favorites) on here before. The other day she shared how to write a condolence note. The timing of this hit home as it was the anniversary of a heartbreaking loss for a good friend of mine. A couple of days after that another friend of mine suffered a loss, which is when I decided to repost some of the tips I found most helpful. When I was in high school, my Aunt opened up to me about the difficulty of losing her young son when he was only months old. I don't remember our entire conversation, but what I will never forget is that she said the worst thing for her was when people didn't acknowledge her loss. Like, if she saw an acquaintance in the store and they just didn't mention the baby or the death. She said "saying something, ANYTHING is better than saying nothing." I've always tried to remember this and find words to validate the experience someone is having, even if it may feel uncomfortable. I find some of this advice echoed below, and think it's helpful to know when we aren't sure what to do following someone's loss. This advice is written by a woman who recently lost her husband, and featured on the blog with the bloggers comments.
Snail mail a card. Every email, phone call, everything was wonderful; I was astounded by how kind people were. Physical cards were especially nice to hold onto. I didn’t care at all what the card looked like. I have them in a basket in our living room and see them every day.
Describe how you can help. I was so grateful when people said, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” But when people offered specifics, it felt even easier for me to take them up on their offers. One friend wrote, “If you ever want to come over, we can grill and make grapefruit mojitos; we’d love to see you and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for you.”
Tell stories. I loved when people wrote specific stories about Paul that I’d never heard, and told me how he had impacted them, what they loved about him, positive things they observed about our relationship. I personally think, the more detail, the better. The grieving person is thinking about the person 100% of the time; nothing you say is going to make her sadder; instead, the stories you tell are going to make her feel connected.
Literally nothing is too cheesy to write. Whatever emotion you’re feeling, it’s probably helpful to say. My friend Kimmy, who lives in Sweden, wrote, “I’m sending you love from across the ocean, as you swim through yours.” Another friend wrote: “When your grief feels dark and bottomless, know that we are here to reflect Paul’s light and love back to you, whether it’s next month, next year or in ten years.” If there is something that you think sounds pretty, go for it. They aren’t analyzing what you say — they just feel so raw.
Of course, you don’t have to be sentimental. One friend wrote, “THIS SUCKS,” and that felt great, too.
Say you’ll never forget him or her. I like hearing that people will miss him. Someone sent me flowers and said, “Thinking of you; we miss Paul dearly,” and that meant a lot. A nurse who worked with him wrote, “We cherish the moments we spent with Paul in the operating room; he will never be forgotten.” Even though she’s a stranger to me, it’s really comforting to know that a nurse out there will never forget him either.
Write, even if you’re an acquaintance. A couple of people I didn’t know well still wrote to me (old friends of Paul’s, or the artist who illustrated Paul’s New York Times essay). It meant so much. You don’t have to be a close friend to write.
Reach out anytime. A few friends texted or sent flowers on the one-month anniversary of his death. Others sent a note a couple months later. They said, “We’re thinking of you,” and that was nice. You are not better two months later. I can imagine it would feel good to receive flowers six months later, a year later.