Service of Condolences

March 18th, 2019

Categories: Condolences, Loss


A friend told me that when he was in college another student’s mother died and he didn’t say a word. When his father died and anyone said “I am sorry,” nothing more, it soothed him and he never again ducked from reaching out to a bereaved acquaintance.

Some are afraid or feel awkward about approaching a person who is grieving. This is natural. Try to remember it’s not about you but about them. If they don’t have time to speak with you when you call or if they don’t immediately respond to your email or text or if they don’t acknowledge the card you sent within a reasonable amount of time, you’ve done nothing wrong. Remember: they are adjusting to a life without a loved one. There may be all sorts of pressures on their time in addition to routine obligations at work and at home. And all along the loss and sadness fight for attention.

I don’t know if they still do it but in France mourners wore a black band around their sleeve or a black button in a lapel. I always thought that this was a good idea so that a grouchy salesperson or bus driver might be kind to a customer who holds them up by taking too much time to find a credit card or carfare.

Do you dodge expressing condolences? I hope you don’t have experience relating to death but if so, did you appreciate the slightest acknowledgement of your loss?



18 Responses to “Service of Condolences”

  1. Annette Kahn Said:

    If I know the person who has suffered a loss, I write a note…if I don’t like, some acquaintances who live in my co-op, I send a card. It’s difficult to write a note if I don’t really know someone. Last year, when a good friend’s spouse died while I was abroad, I had to send a condolence email to acknowledge I’d received her news, but I took her to lunch when I returned home.

  2. Thomas Stier Said:

    Grief is one of the most highly personal experiences of our human condition. No one can truly fathom the grief of another. The loss is deep and profound. It never fully abates. It just is. My only consolation is knowing how deeply the departed loved us, too and would never want us to be so terribly pained by their passing. Grief is an entirely good thing. It means we loved someone deeply. Our souls connected in a wonderful way and we were both better as a result. Love to all grieving. Love you, Jeanne.

  3. Bob Gula Said:

    This condolence situation prompts me to tell a story that always comes to mind when I offer my words of consolation.

    Eons ago when I was in art school the wife of the dean lost her mother. A student friend of mine approached her and “I am sorry to hear about the loss of your Mother”. Her reply back was “No you’re not”. She didn’t say another word. Nancy, my student friend was in total shock.

    Did she mean:
    You really didn’t know my mother.
    Offering your condolence to me is not appropriate.
    Mind your own business.

    How many people in the world would respond in such a manner! Answer only one person who roamed the earth back when I was in school many years ago.
    That being said, I never hesitate to say “I am deeply sorry for your loss”. I certainly want people to use a similar set of words to comfort me in my time of grief!

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I think that email is an acceptable way to send condolences. I usually write a note in a card or if a mass card, I write on a separate piece of paper tucked in.

  5. Anonymous Said:

    At this stage of our lives–we look back on a long history of expressing condolences–to family, friends, even patients’ families. It was part of our growing up. But sadly not for everyone.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I work in an office with a large contingent of 20 and early 30 year olds all of whom work in IT. Almost every one of them have said they were sorry to hear about Homer. Some stopped by the office or said so in the hallway or did so on the run. I appreciated their effort and spirit. Some of the building staff at my apartment are extremely young. Many continue to ask me “How are you doing?” Warms my heart.

  7. Anonymous Said:


    Love you too, Tom. You’ve thought about this a lot–a subject most prefer to ignore. Your words brought tears. We are lucky to have loved people. Some are surrounded by horrors unworthy of their love and respect.

  8. Anonymous Said:


    What a story. When someone is very sad, they spurt out remarks and may regret what they say but with so much going on may forget to apologize.

    Although not nearly as poignant nor important, there are some who snap at polite fellow passengers who offer them a seat in subway or bus. Why? Because they are insulted that someone would think that they are old enough to be offered a seat. Nuts.

    Back to the dean. She may be a literal type. She knew that the student didn’t know the mother and didn’t understand the soothing words were directed at her. Amazing how a story like that stays with you for such a long time. The bereaved have a responsibility to respect those who are trying to offer comfort.

  9. Martha Takayama Said:

    It is awkward and painful to offer condolences. One can only hope that kind thoughts and consoling wishes can ever so slightly soften the pain momentarily.

    I can only nod in assent with the beautifully profound and poetic words of Thomas Stier about the supremely personal nature of indelible grief. I also wish to express my admiration and gratitude for having the opportunity to know such extraordinary individuals as Homer and Jeanne-Marie. I hope that the love and memories that surround Jeanne-Marie offer her some comfort now and always.

    With love and respect, Martha

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:


    I confirm that any outreach with good intentions helps. Sometimes it causes tears. Quite a few friends have told me that those who say they didn’t shed a tear after the death of a dear one wish they had been able to. For me tears have always come easily–wish the opposite were true. Your words are so lovely and heartfelt. Thank you.

  11. Bob Gula Said:

    When I was 11 years old my friend Danny lost his very young father. Danny had a brother and young sister. The sister was mentally slow.

    Danny’s father took a rifle to work and committed suicide.

    We were all in shock. We speculated the young sister’s condition might have been the cause. When Danny returned to school I couldn’t find words to say to him. We never spoke about it. I was very nervous about speaking to him after that. It was very uncomfortable for me! Never forgot it.

  12. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Most little boys would never know what to say under such circumstances. And at any age, with an elephant in the room such as a death that isn’t addressed, a relationship would run cold. Add the trauma and shock of a sudden death of an adult–how very sad for Danny, his brother and his mom–most people at any age would hard pressed to find the right words. “I’m sorry” would be best.

    I wrote this post to assure people who aren’t up to sharing a healing or supportive word with friend or relative, for fear of the reaction or out of discomfort, that they are helping by speaking up or writing. They don’t have to say much.

  13. Jennifer Said:

    I like the custom of the black arm band. My father used to wear one to work when he was mourning. When I was 11, my class was told that the mother of a girl I had known since kindergarten had died, but we were given no guidance on how to reach out to her. I had always cared about her, but I believed she did not consider me a friend. I was terribly afraid that to speak to her about it would invade her privacy. I did not want to encroach. It seemed as though I knew something about her that exposed her in ways she might have only have wanted her friends to be able to see. If she had been able to wear a recognizable symbol, then I would know that it was ok to say something to her. Oddly, I have known others who have felt perhaps like the dean’s wife. In their pain, they felt so little trust that they could not believe that condolences were heart felt rather than part of a dance of social customs. They would feel afraid that forgoing wearing a symbol would make them look as they they did not care, rather than signaling their need to not interact.

    The one enduring feeling I have when someone dies is the frantic wish to know that the one I have lost knew how much I loved them. It is pathetic then that grief then makes me less competent at interacting than even my usual level of gaucheness, thus making me less than usual able to show my caring.

    I am so sorry about your loss.

  14. Catherine Said:

    Jeanne, first, I am so sorry for your loss and look forward to having the opportunity to express that in person. My heart is with you.

    Years ago, when my father-in-law died, my closest friend seemed shocked that I thought she’d attend a viewing or the funeral. She cringed at the thought. Then her mother died, and now she attends funerals quite often. For some people, it takes a loss to trigger emphathy. But when my sister-in-law died in September, at age 63, I was very surprised at the lack of reaction on the part of many people around us. My husband attended a neighborhood meeting (all men) a few weeks later and not one person said a word, including those who knew and who had recent losses that we had acknowledged. Is it gender? I don’t know.

    With each loss we have experienced over the years, I have been overwhelmed by how meaningful each gesture is. We all inevitably share the experience of losing someone close to us. It’s part of the human condition. And acknowledging that shared experience also should be part of being human. But it has to be done with thought as well as feeling or you run the risk of inflicting pain rather than helping to assuage it.

    One thing I’ve noticed over the years is that some people will acknowledge only the blood relative of the person who has died. My husband and I have been together for more than 45 years. After a few years in a good marriage, it’s all our family, not yours or mine. A loss in either affects both halves of the couple. To acknowledge the loss to only one is hurtful because it denies that the other is feeling loss as well.As one of my friends said when I told her my sister-in-law had died, “After that many years, we drop the in-law part. She was your sister, period.” When my mother-in-law of 38 years died, one of my friends actually said, “I’m not here for you. I’m here for your husband.” I had to run to the ladies’ room and cry. The relationship began a downward trajectory that day. Both of these reactions to an in-law’s death will resonate in my head for many years as I reach out to others in the same situation.

  15. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Certainly all of the caring staff in the apartment building I’ve lived in for one month who paid their condolences to me felt no sadness–they don’t know me and few ever saw my husband. And yet every one of them who came to me and shook my hand–one even hugged me–sounded sorry. I will never forget the handyman who rushed out of the elevator he’d just entered to acknowledge me. The doorman who usually stands behind the desk rushed to the front door to hold it for me, bowed slightly, put his hand over his heart and whispered, “I am sorry.” I am grateful for their words and sentiment. Some staff continue to ask how I’m doing.

    I am surprised to hear from people I haven’t thought of or seen in ages. Imagine!

    Thank you for your condolences and the same to you.

  16. Jeanne Byington Said:


    Thank you.

    The title of my response to your comment is “WHAT IS THE MATTER WITH PEOPLE?” You are right about how meaningful any recognition of loss is. I keep wishing I could share the overwhelming kindness–cards, mass cards, emails, even a book to confront loss–with Homer. He worked for Banker’s Trust for 19 years. There’s a group of alums from the bank who keep in touch. One, who became a friend of Homer’s, has sent me some of the comments. I’m amazed. They worked together eons ago, even before Homer and I were a couple. He lives on in their memories. Isn’t that something?

  17. Lucrezia Said:

    It often takes the experience of a close death to understand the need to reach out. No one bothered to alert me to this, so I learned the hard way, after years of well meaning avoidance. In defense of those who fail to communicate, choosing the right words/actions can be painful. It might be a help to know that the bereaved are not made of sugar and won’t melt at the sound/appearance of certain words, and may even welcome them. Treat those in mourning honestly and make them feel a part of your world. It will be greatly appreciated.

    Some of us also like to gather around a friend who suffered a loss by treating him/her to dinner at a favorite restaurant. A festive occasion in times of stress goes a long way towards making a saddened person feel much better.

  18. Jeanne Byington Said:


    If someone reaches out and means well, the bereaved person should take that into consideration and welcome the spirit of the words and not be concerned about the specific ones. I am touched when someone tries to soothe me or make me feel better or thought about.

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