4 tips to help you master the art of offering condolences

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

You log into Facebook and your heart sinks. At the top of your feed is a post by a friend pouring out her heart about the death of her beloved grandmother.

As soon as you finish reading you comment on the post, telling her how sorry you are for her loss and offering handy advice about how she can get through this difficult time. It seems as if it’s the right thing to do – but a new study shows this kind of response often does more harm than good.

In a recent survey by American health website WebMD more than 1 000 respondents said that when they were grieving, they found social media posts, messages and unsolicited advice pointless, irritating and in most cases actively distressing. Comments such as “everything happens for a reason”, “it could be worse” and “they’re in a better place” were mentioned as being among the most loathed messages of condolence often dispensed by friends and acquaintances.

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So how should you respond when someone you care about is in mourning? You can’t just ignore their loss but the last thing you want is to say something that’s just going to make them feel worse. It’s human nature to want to wrap up the situation and tie it with a bow, says Seth J Gillihan, a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania in the USA.

We yearn to say something that will make the person feel better but as wellintentioned as your words of comfort are, they may not be what a friend needs to hear at that moment. “We try to fix the person’s grief, to take it away, either by minimising it, or by trying to offer advice: ‘this was helpful to my aunt when she lost her husband’,” Gillihan explains.

Others make the mistake of disappearing because they think the grieving person wants space or out of fear they might say the wrong thing. “Death is final, there’s nothing you can do when someone has passed on, and because an individual feels they don’t have a solution, they often choose to stay away,” says Charity Mkone, a psychologist at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group.

But it’s actually when they’re grieving that your friends and loved ones need you the most. Here’s a bit of guidance on what to say and do. 

Words of comfort on social media 

People often choose to break the news of a death on social media because it’s the quickest way of informing others about their loss, Johannesburg psychologist Venise Germanos says. “It also offers choice in engaging with people’s condolences when the time is right for the individual,” she adds.

In general, etiquette experts advise if this is how the grieving person has chosen to communicate their loss then unless you know them well, you should stick to this medium. If you send them a private message they may feel obliged to respond. If the loss is fresh, post a response to their message on social media, then give them a bit of space and reach out later.

But if the person is a close friend they’ll want to hear from you. In this situation it’s appropriate to contact them directly. There’s no universally appropriate response, says Yoav van der Heyden, a Cape Town psychologist. “But keep in mind whether you’re sending a message personally to someone or you’re sending it online in a space where people are watching, people will always judge.

So be true to your own values,” he adds. Generally it’s best to avoid tired old platitudes. Rather aim to be sincere by posting something such as, “I’m so sorry. From the other posts you’ve shared about her, she sounded like such an incredible woman. Thinking of you during this sad time.”

If you actually knew your friend’s deceased loved one, maybe you could share a favourite memory. This will be a great comfort because you’ll be helping to keep their memory alive, says etiquette expert Anna Post of the Emily Post Institute, an organisation that teaches etiquette. But avoid discussing details of the death or saying things such as, “It’s a relief she isn’t suffering anymore.” That’s for your bereaved friend to say – but only when they feel ready.

Photo: Getty
Photo: Getty

To a colleague 

Words such as “I’m sorry for your loss” may sound hollow but the phrase is an effective way of acknowledging the traumatic event without being too emotional. Van der Heyden says you should avoid laying on the sympathy too thick – the last thing you want to do is reduce your poor colleague to tears when they’re trying hard to keep things together at work.

“Less is often more, unless you have a good relationship, then more sharing may be suitable,” he says. After the funeral of a loved one, mourners often find themselves alone – where once they were deluged with offers of help, now they’re expected to pick themselves up and carry on.

And it’s exactly at this time, as they return to their daily life, when they may feel at their most vulnerable. This is where other people beyond their close friendship circle can offer valuable support. Make it clear you’re available should the person need any help, whether it’s with their workload or just having someone to talk to about how they’re feeling, says Sandra Jackson, a social worker who works for counselling organisation Family and Marriage Society of South Africa.

“This can be extremely helpful for someone who’s grieving and feeling alone once the formalities of laying their loved one to rest are over,” she adds. “Although they may rather seek emotional comfort outside, knowing that there’s a support system at work will make them feel that their grief is acknowledged.”

Speaking to a friend 

Mkone advises calling your friend, expressing sympathies and asking how they’d like you to help. Sometimes people are too proud to ask for help, or are so overwhelmed they may not even know what it is they want. In such instances offering to look after their children to give them space to grieve, or volunteering to help with flowers or eats for the memorial service may be well received.

Often the best thing you can do is be willing to sit with them in their grief and lend an ear without feeling the need to rush in with words of advice, Jackson adds. “While many of us worry about what to say to a grieving person it’s actually more important to listen – and be present while doing so,” she says.

Don’t shy away from talking about the deceased, Mkone says, but avoid imposing your views and beliefs about death on them.

A distant family relative 

Many of the rules mentioned above apply in this instance too. Try to keep it real. Jackson recommends acknowledging the situation and expressing concern by saying something such as, “I’m sorry to hear this happened to you.” “Offer to help with specific tasks such as the funeral arrangements, food shopping, transporting children to and from school,” she says