Recently a teenage boy in my community committed suicide. I immediately sat down to write the parents a sympathy note. I pulled out a monogrammed card, placed it on the desk in front of me, and proceeded to stare at it blankly for the next two hours.
Though I have been a professional writer for almost 30 years, I could think of absolutely nothing to say.
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?
1. BEING TONGUE-TIED IS O.K. When I solicited advice from friends on social media, 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.’”
Chanel Reynolds’s 43-year-old husband was killed in a biking accident, leaving her a single mother of their 5-year-old son. Ms. Reynolds was so destabilized she started a website now called GYST.com, shorthand for the off-color version of “Get Your Stuff Together.” Her advice: “Zero platitudes. If you’re feeling the urge to panic-talk and fill the air with clichés, don’t.”
She singled out two expressions that particularly grated. The first was, “At least he died doing what he loved.”
“Getting hit and run over by a van was not his love,” she said. “Riding a bike was.”
The other expression, “At least you weren’t married for so long that you can’t live without him.”
“Thank God we were only married for nine years,” she said dryly. “Dodged a bullet there.”
2. SHARE A POSITIVE MEMORY Instead of falling back on a shopworn phrase, savvy condolers often share a warm or uplifting memory of the deceased.
Kevin Young is a poet and creative writing professor at Emory University whose father died more than a decade ago. He channeled his grief into words, first publishing an anthology of poems about mourning called “The Art of Losing” and later a collection of his own work on the subject called “Book of Hours.”
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.”
3. NO COMPARISONS One bit of quicksand worth avoiding is the temptation to say you know what the other person is going through. Everyone experiences grief differently. While you may have felt angry or overwhelmed when your loved one died, the person you’re writing to may have channeled her grief into work or hyper-efficient house purging.
“The temptation is to bring it back to yourself, but this is not about you,” Ms. Reynolds said. “I heard things like, ‘I was at my friend’s house when I heard,’ ‘I couldn’t sleep all night long,’ ‘I cried so hard.’ Really? Because I think I’m sadder.” A better approach, she said, is to be neutral. “You can absolutely express your sadness and sorrow,” she said, “but remove yourself from the conversation.”
4. DON’T DODGE THE ‘D’ WORDS Death in our culture has become so sanitized, we have become afraid to mention it by name. While this instinct may come from a good place, it often lands in a bad one, the treacly territory of euphemism and happy talk. Loved ones don’t “die” anymore; they’re “carried away” or “resting peacefully.”
“When did people become so squeamish,” one friend griped. “All the euphemisms make my skin crawl.”
To avoid this tendency, consider following the lead of the police support website officer.com, which advises law enforcement officials doing death notification to use “simple, straightforward language.”
“Don’t’ be afraid to use the ‘D’ words — dead, died or death. Terms such as ‘expired,’ ‘passed on’ or ‘lost’ are words of denial. ‘Expired’ can be used on a driver’s license but not in person — it’s not respectful.”
5. GET REAL. By contrast, grievers hear so many vacuous phrases that a little straight talk can often be a welcome relief. A little bluntness goes a long way.
The food writer and editor Jane Lear has collected etiquette books for many years and studied how condolence notes have evolved. She prefers 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.
“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.”
The current iteration of Emily Post, emilypost.com, agrees, saying that commenting in public forums or sending an email is an acceptable first gesture, as long as you follow “with a handwritten note and, whenever possible, attendance at the funeral or visitation.”
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.
One friend told me, “I personally back off from doing anything right away and offer to take the griever out for lunch, coffee or dinner a month or so later when everyone has returned to their lives and the person is left alone to deal with the pieces.”
Ms. Reynolds said: “Even three or four months later, touching base can help. I would encourage people to send notes on the deceased’s birthday, on the couple’s anniversary, or some other meaningful occasion.”
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.
Or, do something: Take the deceased’s pet for a walk, run an errand, offer to pick up a relative from the airport.
Or, fall back on what loving supporters have been doing for generations: Send food, even if it’s by mail. Citing his own experience, Mr. Young said: “Cookies are great. You’ve got to eat.”