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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 September 18, 2020

    13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    “We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

    “It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

    Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

    You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

    Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

    1. Take a step back and evaluate

    When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

    1. What is the problem?
    2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
    3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
    4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
    5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

    Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

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    2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

    If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

    At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

    Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

    3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

    Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

    4. Process your thoughts/emotions

    Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

    1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
    2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
    3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
    4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

    5. Acknowledge your thoughts

    Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

    By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

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    Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

    6. Give yourself a break

    If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

    7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

    A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

    Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

    After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

    8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

    As Helen Keller once said,

    “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

    Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

    9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

    In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

    1. What’s the situation?
    2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
    3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
    4. Take action on your next steps!

    After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

    10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

    A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

    Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

    For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

    11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

    No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

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    12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

    No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

    13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

    There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

    After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

    Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

    Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

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