Let’s say a friend, a neighbour or a colleague has died, and you’re feeling compelled to reach out to their family. But so often there’s the question of what exactly to say. Outside of the classic “I’m sorry for your loss”, you may be wondering how to write a condolence message that can actually bring a sense of comfort or healing for them.
Some time ago, I met with parents who lost their beautiful 30-year-old daughter to plan the ceremony that would help them say farewell to her. During our meeting, they spoke of the comfort they received as they read through the condolence messages on the funeral home website. They told me how they felt particularly consoled when people shared their specific memories and experiences with their daughter.
I remember her dad shared this with such a look of awe and wonder in his eyes. He couldn’t believe how much reading those words helped. He said it almost felt “magical”! This father even printed them all out and highlighted the ones they wanted me to read at her funeral.
Fast forward to a graveside service I had performed a couple days after I officiated the funeral. After the final words were said, the newly-widowed woman came up to me. And with emotion in her voice, she said, “Someone told me that they overheard someone else at the reception on Saturday. She said she heard them say they now felt they knew Mike* a bit better. I can’t believe how good it felt to hear them say that.”
I hear this a lot.
Over the years, many people have told me how they will go back and reread people’s memories posted on the funeral home website, on social media posts and in the cards they’re given. It might seem like a small gesture, but so many of you who take the time to share your reflections have no idea what a massive impact it has on the family.
Here at Cardinal’s, each family we serve has a page on our website dedicated to the memory of their loved one. A memorial book for people to write their messages of care and support is included as part of this page. So how can we write a condolence message that is helpful and healing? How can we go beyond a simple “I’m sorry for your loss”?
Here a couple of thoughts to help get you started.
1. Write “from your heart”.
What does this often overused phrase mean? In my mind, it’s about being genuine.
First tip: You can read your message out loud and ask yourself, “Is this something I would actually say to the person if they were in front of me? Does this sound like me?”
Second tip: Avoid platitudes such as, “It was for the best”, “Heaven needed another angel” or anything that begins with “At least” (“At least she’s not suffering anymore”, etc.) At best, these often fall flat. At worst, they can be hurtful because they undermine the grief the person is feeling. (They might be inwardly thinking, “Sure, maybe they are in a better place but that doesn’t change the fact that I wish they were here with me.”)
2. Refer to the deceased by their name.
This may seem obvious but people in grief often report how nice it is to hear others refer to their loved one’s name (as opposed to just “your husband” or “your sister”). It’s worth noting that this applies when directly speaking to the person as well – not just when writing messages of condolences.
Some make the mistake of avoiding the subject of the person who has died because they believe bringing him/her up will upset their friend. However, the opposite is often true. People in grief report that they are often aching to talk about their loved one. So when you bring up their name, you signify to them that you are a safe person they can do that with.
And here’s our main point:
3. Refer to a favourite memory or quality you admired in the deceased.
Some examples could include things like:
“I’ll never forget that vacation we took together.”
“I always knew I could count on him. If he said he was going to be there, he 100% would be.”
“I will smile every time I see someone feeding ducks like she used to.”
“His belly laugh was the absolute best!”
Why are these stories and reflections so healing to read?
There are multiple reasons I’m sure. But the one I keep coming back to is this. If you feel more connected to their person, they will feel that you’re now a bit more connected to them. They will have the sense that you understand a bit more about who and what they’ve lost. And that moves you closer to being able to hold space for them while they grieve.
* name has been changed to protect privacy