There’s no good card for this, and working out what to say to a bereaved person is incredibly difficult. So how do we show up for people in times of pain and grief?
I’d love to give you a script, but there is so much nuance here… deep stories, sacred ground, shared humanity, and irreplaceable loss. Maybe the words shouldn’t come too easily. So let me share a few helpful principles before we get to the practical stuff.
1 Nothing you can say or do will make it better
If you’re skimming this article looking for The Answer, I’d better begin by getting the disappointment out of the way up front: nothing can fix this.
Losing someone is unbearable. All of our best words are like throwing Lego bricks into a canyon.
So let’s start from the knowledge that whatever we say will be inadequate: when we release the pressure we were never meant to carry, hopefully we can steer away from the most unhelpful comments and towards something that lands with love.
2 It’s OK if you don’t know what to say
Especially if you live in a culture that hasn’t given you the tools for this (hello, fellow Brits!)
When it comes to understanding grief and supporting bereaved people, there is still so much outdated and awful advice circulating around. Many of us haven’t had healthy, empathetic examples to learn from (though I hope and pray this is starting to change).
Before I experienced tragic loss, I had no idea. And afterwards I wanted to apologise to every grieving person I’d previously known. It’s not our fault that we don’t know, and I’m gently applauding you right now for doing some research by reading this.
Ultimately, our aim is for this person to feel seen and loved. If that’s your heartfelt motivation, be honest: I don’t know what to say. I’d fix this if I could. I’m so sad this has happened to you. It beats a thoughtless fix-it comment every time.
3 You cannot process this for them
The comfort is not in ‘comforting’. What I mean is, we tend to think that comfort is about making someone feel better in the moment – seeing visible improvement taking place in front of us, as if they’ll dry their eyes and say ‘I feel a bit better now, thanks!’
I’ve heard some jaw-droppingly-terrible things from otherwise rational, caring people, and the only explanation I can come up with is that they thought they were helping me to gain perspective, understand the inexplicable, or look on the bright side (spoiler: it didn’t work).
So. No silver linings, no sentences that start with ‘at least’, no possible reasons for why life could possibly have taken this turn, no theological arguments, no spiritual laws. Now is not the time.
Acknowledging one another’s pain – being faithful witnesses to it, staying in the hard emotions without rushing to the positives – is one of the greatest things we can do for each other. To say: yes, this is as terrible as it seems; no, it can’t be fixed in this lifetime; yes I will sit with you in it, for as long as you need.
Those have been the most comforting times I’ve experienced; when people have cried with me, have agreed that this really sucks and it really hurts.
It’s also worth remembering that, in early grief, looking to the future is not uplifting. Everything that happens from this point on will happen without the person they’ve lost – the future is filled with impossible absence. Stay focused on the here and now.
So what DO you write in a sympathy card?
It will vary depending on who you are, who your recipient is and relationship between you, but I think the best ones include:
- That you’re thinking of them
- That you love them
- That you’ll keep checking in with them (if you do intend to do so)
If you offer help, be super specific
The standard phrase is ‘let me know if you need anything’. Of the many people who signed off with this, I took up their offer exactly zero times. Figuring out what could possibly make a difference, and then figuring out who to ask, and then actually initiating contact, and making arrangements… it was all completely beyond me in the first few weeks. (It’s still pretty out of reach now, after two years.)
It may seem like a sensible idea to leave the ball in their court, but all their energy may simply be focused on surviving the next five minutes. We’re trying to take things off their shoulders, not add more things to think about.
Try making a specific offer and suggest when/where/how you’ll do it, e.g. I’m making a lasagne on Saturday, I can drop it off at 6pm, it can go in the freezer if you don’t want to eat it straightaway. Is that OK? Ideally it can be answered in one word, yes or no.
My top tip for sympathy cards…
Write YOUR name on the outside of the envelope.
Bereaved people tend to get a lot of post, sympathy cards and death admin on top of the daily life stuff (extra salt in the wound if you lose someone in December, with the Christmas cards thrown in too). Much of it looks the same from the outside, but some things will be OK, some triggering, some nice, some painful… and you won’t know until you open it.
I’ve noticed that people who regularly work around grief (palliative care, hospital chaplaincy, funeral directors) tend to put their name on the outside of the envelope, and so this is my top tip to you too. Somewhere on the envelope, perhaps across the back flap, write ‘From’ and your name – if not your full name, put enough that they’ll know it’s from you.
When so much is unpredictable and wildly out of control, you can let them know a little of what to expect with this tiny action.
There’s no good card for this, but I’ve tried to make some anyway… Find the range of grief and loss cards here.