Thursday, January 8, 2009

Expressing Condolences

Last night I received an email from a friend, writing to say that the teenage son of business acquaintances had died suddenly in the night. She added that she was astonished by some of the stupid things people have written on the funeral home's website page for condolence notes.

It is not, not for me and not for anyone else willing to think about it, difficult to imagine that first encounter with a beloved son's lifeless body.

My friend didn't ask, but I am a little crazy these days, and so I blundered right ahead and offered her two suggestions, elaborated below for anyone who fears (which should be all of us) doing or writing something stupid at such a time:

1. Make a note on the calendar for three months, four months, five, six months from now, so that you can send a note or stop by when most everyone else is gone.

There is a woman from my church who has written me a paragraph or two every ten-to-fourteeen days for the last four months. Not a pastor, not a deacon (one of the people officially in charge of such things in our church structure), not a BFF. A woman whom I know a little from vaious contexts and who has taken it upon herself to take the time to let me know that she is thinking of us. Often I can't digest the words, but someday I will be able to and, in the meantime, the very fact of her concern and intentionality about it is registering as remarkable and considerate.

2. The words of condolence, whether written or spoken? Say something specific about the gifts or adventures or life of the person who has died, and convey in some way your knowledge, whether first or eighth-hand, that he or she was a joy to the people who loved him or her. Unless you are at least 150% certain about how your words will be received, this is not the time to share whatever convictions you may have about God's plan or purpose or goodness ~ especially where a young person has died, or a person has died after much suffering, or a person has died sudddenly and unexpectedly, or in pretty much any situation at all. Even someone whose life has been an endless demonstration of certitude and conviction of faith may be rocked to the core by the loss of a loved one, and assurances that might have seemed helpful in the abstract can be heard much differently in the starkness of concrete reality.

The very best words I have received, some by email and some in person, have come from college and work friends of my son - filled with stories and conversations, expressing their own doubts and confusion and terrible, terrible sense of loss -- but always in concrete terms, always accompanied with illustrations and memories, both humorous and haunting. Those 20-somethings could teach the rest of us well.

I hope that people remind my friend's friends, again and again this week, and again and again months from now, that their son lit up this world with his life and love.

(Cross-posted at Search the Sea)


Ruth Hull Chatlien said...

I have heard from others that one of the best gifts to give the grieving is a concrete example of some positive way their loved one touched you. I've tried to remember that, and I'm grateful you posted your suggestions.

I know that one of the worst things that happened after my father's death was that his pastor barely mentioned him at all at the funeral--and the story he did tell was just a very weird anomoly--and then he quickly moved into his standard Baptist altar call. It was horrible. Absolutely horrible.

Gannet Girl said...

We went to a graveside service for a friend's father a couple of summers ago that was similar. After asking the uncertain and prepared gathering to share memories, providing no microphone so that the elderly voices could be heard, and getting little response, the Methodist minister moved into his unexpected altar call, leaving much of the family more stunned than had already been the case. Once again the young people came to the rescue, with the commentary they provided at the reception afterward.

I'm so sorry, Ruth, that your family was not better cared for.