Sunday, March 15, 2009

Expressing Sympathy

Many people have called and expressed sympathy about our losing our coworker in death last month.

Most have been genuine expressions of sympathy and were well given and gratefully received.

However, some expressions were attempts to help or to fix the grief-stricken, I being one.
One commenter said, "Well, God just needed Sherri more in heaven than on earth!" I reacted inwardly to that statement and wanted to (but didn't) say, "And how's that?" And also, "And how do you know that?"

Others, also meaning well, said don't dwell on missing her, just remember the good times!!

You know what? I want to cry. I want to grieve. I want to miss her. I need to feel the hurt and pain of losing someone very special!!

And, I don't want someone trying to fix me or to hurry up my personal process of letting my grief do its work and letting my memories and my feelings get into place, and I'll be okay. Let me be the judge of my own process, my own timing, and my own grief!

Do I sound a little angry and cynical? I probably am, but I've been through this before with other deaths in my family, and I'm not near as reactive as I used to be. Now I mostly just chuckle and shrug and pray that I'll remember how those comments made me feel and that I won't make the same mistake when I comment to someone in grief.

So, what is a good response?

My opinion is when you go to express sympathy to someone, just cry with the one in grief, give them a big hug, and say something simple like, "I know you'll miss them," or say nothing at all. Just feel with them and be there. That's the best possible response. IMHO

I received a long-distance phone call and the person said a few "right" phrases rather quickly and then was gone. My immediate thought was that she could now check that off her to-do list. That's what it felt like. Again, maybe nothing said is better than saying canned phrases.

Perhaps this post is really for me to remind myself anew about how to express sympathy to someone in grief. Maybe it's a good reminder for you if you've stopped by and read this.

Just thinking through some things...


Anonymous said...


Your note made me think of a Leadership Journal article from it's early years on dealing with grief. A lady who was suffering deeply (from Dallas) kept a journal. One entry mentioned visitors that day - "some touched. some scarred." I pray God will keep the scarring to a minimum and thank you for being so open at such a difficult time.


Anonymous said...

I wonder if part of the awkwardness is that culturally we aren't taught what to do when we grieve. American's are taught to 'fix things.' It seems that other cultures have better grieving rituals. I particularly like the Jewish Kaddish. The blogger, "Happy" has a really great post on this:

Mary Burleson said...

Scotty, I like that phrase, "some touched; some scarred." May I always remember that as I'm relating to others. I do not want to be a causer of wounds and scars.

Cathy, I read Happy's post on the Jewish Kaddish. Very interesting and I think it's a great idea. That would be an experience to be a part of something like that, a fabulous support group setup. Thanks for showing me Happy's blog. Good stuff.

Bobby Brown said...

Hospice taught me that when you visit grieving people the best thing you can do is let them grieve. If they want to relate the tragedy back to you word for word just be quite and encourage them do it. "Tears heal the soul like salt heals a wound"! And it isn't just death it can be other things like a child or spouse who twists off. When major hurts are going on in our lives we need empathy not fixing. I remember when I had a unwed daughter who was pregnant and someone said smoking was a sin. Somehow whether or not smoking was a sin was totally irrelevant to me at the time. said...

Any anger or cynicism you feel is justified. I think you've struck a chord with this post.
So many bereaved individuals suffer additional hurt from inappropriate responses. Many people avoid grieving individuals making them really feel isolated.
I don't want to sound judgmental. I can relate to feeling awkward around hurting individuals and not knowing what to say.
Here is the crazy thing though. We go wrong in expressing sympathy by making it too complicated. We try to fix grief, find a solution or offer advice. We need to let grief happen and offer support by listening and being there (via card or phone call). The best ways to express sympathy are always simple.
This was such a novel concept to me I started a really helpful website called Simple Sympathy. You might take comfort in reading The Top Ten Sympathy Phrases to Avoid. Many others have also endured such"expressions of sympathy." Unfortunately as you have experienced, these inappropriate responses are far too common.

Anyways, I am glad to have come across your post. It was a good reminder of my mission.
Best Wishes