Offering Condolences—There is a better way

By guest blogger Claude Thau
April 25, 2018

Who among us has not felt awkward trying to express our condolences to someone who has lost a loved one? And who among us, having experienced such a loss, has not felt awkward trying to figure out how to respond when people express their sympathies?

Offering condolences can be an unfulfilling ritual conversation for both parties. It is a pro forma expression that can make the bereaved person uncomfortable. It reminds them of their loss and they know that the speaker may feel uneasy broaching the topic. Hence the bereaved person simply says “thank you” to end the exchange as soon as possible.

People expressing condolences frequently perceive (or anticipate) the bereaved person’s discomfort, which exacerbates the problem.

I’ve been using an alternate approach which has been tremendously successful for me, at least when people have lost an elder relative or sibling/cousin. I’d like to share it with you but would caveat that it does not seem to be as effective with the loss of a spouse or child.

When I know that someone has lost a dear friend or relative, I ask them to tell me about their memories of that person, what the person’s interests were, etc. Or, if I know that they are rushed, I ask them if they would please tell me about that person when they have time. The request can be delivered in a variety of ways depending upon the relationship. For example:

“I know you were really close to your mother. I’d appreciate it if you could tell me more about her.”

“I’m disappointed that I never had the pleasure of meeting your father and would love to know more about him. Could you share some memories?”

“Were you close to your mother-in-law? …. That’s great! I’d like to hear more about her. What memories will you cherish?”

Sometimes people will tell me that they are not ready yet to do so, but sometimes they proceed anyway. In other cases, I set an appointment or simply a personal follow-up to contact them later.

Asking about their dearly-departed loved one accomplishes the following:

1. It shows respect for the deceased.
2. It empowers the bereaved person to talk about their loved one, something they usually want to do.
3. In talking about their loved one, they realize that their memories will not perish with the person. The person will live on in their memory and they’ll be able to apply that loved one’s sage advice in the future.
4. The bereaved person engages in a step that enhances the grieving process.
5. The questioner learns about a wonderful person and learns more about the bereaved person. It brings them closer. Sometimes I’ve decided to make a donation in honor of the person.
6. The bereaved person appreciates an active listener.

Such conversations are not uncomfortable for either person, as demonstrated by my experiences with people who varied from a long-term friend to a stranger I met on a bus.

I talked with a person who was a business associate of mine many years ago, but we were in different cities and did not really know each other well. After several years, I was making an effort to build a new relationship with his organization through a member of his staff. In doing so, I learned that his mother-in-law had died. Now mother-in-law relationships can be tricky, so I called and asked him on the phone if he had been close to his mother-in-law.

His response was that he should have been closer; he should have made more effort to spend time with her. She was a wonderful person.

So I asked him to share some memories about her.

He started taking about a fishing trip that she took with him and his children. As he was speaking, I obtained clarity — so her daughter was not there, it was just you and her and the kids? He affirmed.

He talked about her sense of humor; her strength and how good a fisherwoman she was. He clearly had a much closer relationship with her than I had initially inferred.

His enthusiasm in describing his memories gushed across the phone lines. He was proud of his mother-in-law and happy to talk about her. The intergenerational memories of her impact on his children underscored that she had lived a good and meaningful life.

After he had finished speaking, it was easy to thank him, noting how meaningful his comments had been to me. I observed that he and his mother-in-law had clearly taken the time to build a relationship with each other and his children and commented that it seemed to have been a wonderful relationship. She undoubtedly appreciated the support that he had given to her and his contributions to her daughter and grand-children. I told him it was clear that he would miss her, but that he and his family certainly had some great memories to cherish.

Another circumstance involved a lifelong friend. (Okay, not quite. I’ve only known her and her husband for about 50 years. That really is a significant difference because if I had known her all my life, I would have known her father.). Her husband was my best friend in high school and the best man at my wedding. My wife and I had known for years that her father was failing but never met her father (we live half-way across the country from her and her husband) and really had not asked a lot of detailed questions about her family history.

When we learned, via email, that her father had died, I called her to ask her about her father. He had actually died a few weeks earlier. She began telling us about his last days and some of the medical problems they faced together. She and her husband had been away at the NCAA Women’s Basketball Final Four and had had to leave the tournament to get to his bedside.

I then asked her to tell me about him. When I did, she went back over the final days in greater detail. She headed a lab at a hospital and was deeply involved and knowledgeable about his health difficulties. When I was younger, I might have interrupted her by saying “you misunderstood; I was asking about your older memories of him”. At a somewhat more mature stage of my life, I might have interrupted and apologized for not being clear, clarifying what I had meant to ask.

Now, I realized that I could simply let her say her piece. In fact, it gave me time to find a simple way to respond when she was done. Her father had been in a nursing home and had experienced a painful and long decline. As his primary support, she had been enmeshed in his pain. I simply acknowledged what she told me, with a comment such as “wow, that was difficult for you”. Then, following a brief pause, I clearly changed the subject: “Can you tell me about some of your memories of him from your youth?”

That set off a torrent. We learned about how she had been the most frail of his children. He had protected her, telling her older siblings not to touch her because she might break. She rode in the tractor with him around the farm and as he changed careers, it seemed as though she always had opportunities to ride with him in one type of vehicle or another. For example, he delivered mail from a hub post office to rural post offices and she would ride with him. It became very clear why she had become his primary care-giver.

This was a 4-phone conversation. My wife and I were each on an extension at our house and our friends each were on an extension at their home. To my surprise, when she paused, her husband jumped in to share some of his memories of his relationship with her father. So, we inadvertently gave him an opportunity to grieve in a positive sense with an enthusiastic homage to her father. I imagine it must have made his wife feel very good as well. I felt a tremendous amount of love and energy bring released and think progress was made toward accepting his death.

Another opportunity occurred on a Parking Spot shuttle bus at the airport. I sat down opposite a woman who looked very tired. I asked her how she was. She explained briefly that she had lost someone in her family. I commented that she had seemed tired so I could tell that she had been thinking about this person a lot. She then explained that the lady was her sister-in-law and had been murdered. When she offered a bit more information about the murder, I remembered having read about it and told her that I had been sad to read about it. I asked if she was just arriving in town to attend the funeral and learned that she was flying out of town to a family reunion.

I asked her to tell me about her sister-in-law. The first thing she said was “She could cook!” I saw a small smile form on her face and her eyes. I told her that she seemed to be remembering the savory smell and taste of that cooking and that I could see that she enjoyed it. She agreed enthusiastically and went on to tell me about her sister-in-law’s personality. Her visage had entirely changed. As she was getting off the bus at her airline, she turned and asked me: “Are you a minister?” I think that is one of the nicest compliments I have received. Another lady riding on the bus was partly out of earshot and asked me to repeat some of the information the lady had shared. A man riding on the bus simply said, “You taught me something. Thank you.”

This approach works wonderfully. The conversations are positive, free-flowing and beneficial to all parties. You not only will feel great seeing the positive impact on the bereaved person but you will also learn about a wonderful person’s impact on their loved ones. I hope you are able to reproduce my success with this approach.

Compassion & Choices
Media Contacts

Sean Crowley
Media Relations Director
[email protected]

Patricia A. González-Portillo
National Latino Media Director
[email protected]
(323) 819 0310

Compassion & Choices
8156 S Wadsworth Blvd #E-162
Littleton, CO 80128

Mail contributions directly to:
Compassion & Choices Gift Processing Center
PO Box 485
Etna, NH 03750