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7 Tips for Writing Words of Condolence in the Digital Age

7 Tips for Writing Words of Condolence in the Digital Age

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    I just learned this morning that two friends of mine (sisters) lost their father to suicide yesterday. He was about to turn 80.

    The younger sister posted their sad announcement on Facebook along with a photo of her dad titled, “My dad’s first and last selfie.”

    They are profoundly bereaved and completely bewildered. He was both loved and loving. Since they saw no warning signs, their minds are consumed with trying to seek answers to their many questions.

    The reaction to her post has been of course voluminous. Within minutes she began receiving condolence messages from friends, neighbors, and colleagues.

    Yet, after reading through them, I had to wonder if these posts provided any of the comfort their authors surely meant to offer.

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    “Our thoughts are with you.”

    “So sorry to hear of your dad’s passing.”

    “Praying for you and your family during this difficult time.”

    In light of the enormity of their loss, these short phrases ended up sounding unintentionally hollow.

    And then I realized: they just didn’t know what to say.

    This is not, of course, a new problem in our culture. We have a long history of being uncomfortable and unfamiliar with knowing what to say to, and how to act around, those who are experiencing a tragedy.

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    And these days, there is an additional complication: we are often learning of these losses from people we never physically see anymore, whose lives (if truth be told) we know very little about. Sometimes, as is the case with these two sisters and me, the gap is decades.

    The challenge is how to successfully provide messages of genuine comfort across the digital miles and expanse of time, through nothing more than words on a public page.

    I’ve counseled hundreds of bereaved people over the years. The losses ranged from pets to parents, homes to health…and everything in between. I’ve listened to their stories of how loving words of kindness and generosity brought them peace and comfort, and I’ve learned along the way what touches their broken hearts.

    The next time you want to offer some online words of comfort, follow these 7 guidelines for soothing the bereaved:

    1.  Use their name

    There’s a big difference emotionally between “I was so sorry to hear of your great loss!” and “Oh Margaret, I was so sorry to hear of your great loss!” It instantly personalizes your note and expresses more emotion. In this two-dimensional, impersonal space, connection is the goal.

    2.  Say more than one sentence

    Offer a bit more of your time and thought than just 4-5 safe words of condolence. Move past your discomfort and add a few more lines. It will stand out among the one-liners and have a bigger impact on your friend.

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    3.  Keep your comments simple in format

    Shock, grief, horror, trauma…these emotional states slam the brain with tremendous power. The brain responds by shutting down several areas of what usually constitutes normal thinking. For instance, sometimes people experiencing these highly challenging emotions and states have trouble following complex stories or lines of reasoning. So don’t write a lengthy essay about grief and loss and the power of human connection. They need simple but sincere words. Try to include some of these phrases instead:

    “I think of you every day and wish I could do something to make life easier for you.”

    “We can’t imagine how difficult things must be for you right now, but you are a strong and loving soul who will somehow make it through this ordeal.”

    “I imagine you are just trying to get through the hours and days right now.  I’ll call you in a week to see how you are and offer my love and support more personally.”

    4.  Avoid (like the plague) saying any version of this being “God’s will”

    Even devout people can hear this very differently than it is intended when they are deeply bereaved. Remember that they are somewhere between being in a state of shock and having heightened emotions, so they may hear this as “God wanted it this way.” If the bereaved say this, you can go with it, because they’ve set the precedent–the fact that they’re saying it indicates that this concept comforts them, so you’ll know it’s safe to agree. But saying it yourself puts you at risk of making a hurtful assumption.

    5.  Clichés are worse than saying nothing

    As mentioned earlier, they can come off as hollow when you are trying to be sincere. Stick with phrases like, “I wish I could say something that would ease your anguish,” “We’ll keep checking back with you to see how you’re doing–we love you,” and “I’m always up at (5am or 11pm, etc.) in case you want to talk” are honest and supportive without being syrupy sweet. People appreciate that.

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    6.  Avoid telling your story

    Strike any comment that starts with “I know how you feel.”  You don’t.  You can’t.  Every loss is an utterly unique situation.  There are contexts we know nothing about that change the nuances of everyone’s story. Maybe the flood that hit their house swept away the ashes of their 6 month old baby that died 2 years ago. Maybe the heart attack that the family says killed their son was actually a drug overdose. It only heightens their pain when you try to compare what happened to you with what’s happening to them. The best thing you can do is offer unconditional, nonjudgemental lovingkindness. Don’t try to compare your loss with theirs.

    7.  Be mindful of their grief as time passes

    Big losses—divorce, devastating illness or injury, fire, death—leave deep wounds of sorrow that can last for years. Everyone else moves on, leaving the bereaved feeling quite alone. Reach out during the holiday season. Drop a little note on days of significance (for my friends, it would be Fathers Day, for instance, or in a year, the date of their dad’s death.) Tell them you’re thinking of them that day. Those notes can help your friend make it through the tough times.

    If you use these guidelines the next time you’ve learned about a loss through social media, you’ll know your words of comfort are balm to your friend’s soul.

    Featured Photo credit: ID 1654808 © Pixelcitizen | Dreamstime.com

    Featured photo credit: Pixelcitizen via dreamstime.com

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    Last Updated on February 18, 2019

    Why It’s Never Too Late To Redefine Yourself

    Why It’s Never Too Late To Redefine Yourself

    The ability to reinvent and redefine yourself is a bold, daring and purposeful choice. It doesn’t just happen. You have to make a conscious, intentional choice and then follow through.

    If the thought of forging a new path, changing habits, thought patterns and your inner circle of friends scares you – you’re not alone. Change can be a very scary thing. It takes courage, fortitude and a bit of faith to decide to shed your old self and don a new persona. However, it is one of the most critical processes one must repeatedly endure in the pursuit of destiny. Change unlocks new levels of potential.

    The Need for Change

    Everyday when we wake up, we make a decision. We decide to follow our routine or we decide to go off script and shake things up a bit. For those who are creatures of habit, routine is comfortable, easy and produces very little stress. The problem with this is, after a while you stop growing.

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    We all reinvent ourselves at some point in our lives. It is absolutely necessary to achieve certain levels of success.

    Reflect back on who you were as a teenager and then who you were at 25. Those are two very different people. Most of us are completely different. Your thought patterns changed, your appearance, job, level of education and even your friends– changed. We like to refer to this as “growing up” or maturing and consider it to be one of life’s natural progressions. However the changes you made were purposeful and deliberate.

    This process must be a lifelong and continuous cycle. You are never too old to refresh yourself.

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    Happy_old_man

      Signs It’s Time to Redefine

      “Just as established products and brands need updating to stay alive and vibrant, you periodically need to refresh or reinvent yourself.”– Mireille Guiliano

      So how do you know when it’s time for a system upgrade? There are signs along the way that alert you that it is time for an overhaul. The first sign is the feeling of being stuck. If you feel like you are in a rut, you’re bored with life or you need some newness and excitement, a self reinvention may be in order. Re-evaluate your life vision and your goals. Is that vision still valid and are your goals consistent with your vision and–are they achievable? If you are off course, it’s time for a change. If you are not moving forward and making progress, it’s time for a change.

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      In life, there’s no such thing as neutrality–you’re either moving forward or you are moving backward. Time constantly moves forward and if you are standing still, you are actually losing ground. No matter your age or stage in life– there is always room for improvement.

      “You’re never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream.” ~C. S. Lewis

      The second sign that you are due for a change is the occurrence of major life events in which change is forced upon you. Getting married, starting a new job, being promoted, ending a relationship, becoming a parenting or relocating are all prime opportunities to completely overhaul your life.

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      When these major shifts occur in your life–you have to shift with them. You can’t have a single mentality and have a successful marriage. You can’t remain selfish and irresponsible, and raise a healthy, well-adjusted child. You can’t be promoted to a supervisory position and keep the same subordinate attitude. Each level of success requires something different from you.

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        Consider, for a moment, Arnold Schwarzenegger. People may have different opinions about his character and some of his life choices, but he is a master at reinventing himself. He achieved the ultimate success as a professional body builder by earning the title “Mr. Universe” three times. He then earned a tremendous amount of fame and fortune in the entertainment industry making action/adventure films. And in his latest role, he served two terms as the Governor of California. He succeeded as a professional body builder, a film star and a politician. Each role required massive amounts of change, commitment, strength and hard work.

        And if Arnold can do it…so can you!

        Featured photo credit: BK via flickr.com

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