Authors Share the Words of Condolence : Grief: Knowing what to say to a bereaved person can make one a supportive friend, indeed.

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The husband of a close friend dies. You want to send your condolences. You check the cards at the local drugstore, but nothing seems right. Too flowery. Too religious. Too formal.

So you sit down with pen and paper and start to write. You are gripped with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. Everything you start to say seems awkward or cliched or inadequate.

You want to be warm and supportive. You want to express your sympathy. You want to say just the right thing. You have writer’s block.


“So often people tell us that this is a terrible task. It becomes such (that people) just walk away from it or buy a card and just sign their name,” says Hilary Stanton Zunin, who co-wrote “The Art of Condolence” (Harper Collins, $19.95) with her husband, Leonard M. Zunin. “People are so afraid of making a mistake.”

But saying nothing at all, especially in the case of a close friend, is a bigger sin.

“A condolence letter is a message of compassion and acknowledgment of loss,” says Leonard Zunin, senior psychiatric consultant for the California Department of Mental Health. “It says, in some small measure, that ‘I share your pain.’ ”

The Zunins decided to compile the guide on what to write, say and do at times of loss after they discovered a batch of letters written to military widows who lost their husbands in Vietnam. The letters had been stored in their attic for about 20 years. Leonard Zunin had was chief of neuropsychiatry at Camp Pendleton during the late 1960s and ran support workshops for the widows.

“I asked them to bring in the letters that were the most healing to them, the most meaningful,” he says. “It was part of our recovery workshops.”

Having helped patients with terminal illnesses and their families, he realized that there were no guidelines to help people say the right thing when condolence is called for.

“I took a look at the letters and came up with the common themes that are comforting to those in pain,” Leonard says. “Then Hilary and I did research into all kinds of letters and writing and talked to everyone we knew.”


The result is a useful volume with how-to information to help folks through what is always an awkward and difficult time.

“We actually came up with the four reasons people don’t send condolence messages,” Hilary Zunin says:

* Feeling that one is making a mistake and saying the wrong thing.

* Thinking it is a chore and burden and having no clue about what to say.

* Fear that contact may mean involvement, which may cause us discomfort if the grieving person leans on us too much.

* Fear of opening up our own feelings about mortality and the possibility of being alone.

“We don’t really handle death well in our society,” Leonard Zunin says. “It starts in our childhood when a pet dies and parents lie and say it ran away. That just doesn’t help prepare us in any way.”

But, ready or not, there are times in life when you must write a condolence letter.

“We found seven common themes that those in grief mention as comforting,” Leonard Zunin says.

These seven steps can help people to write a compassionate note:

* Acknowledge the loss. Phrases expressing your shock and dismay are perfectly acceptable. Mention the deceased by name.


* Express your sympathy. Let the grieving person know you care. It is permissible to use the word death or mention the cause of death.

* Note special qualities of the deceased. Write about the personality traits you valued. If you did not know the deceased, you may have to do this by reputation or write something that helps the grieving person know the value of their loved one.

* Recount a memory about the deceased. This personalizes your letter. Share an anecdote or tell how this person influenced your life. Do not avoid humorous incidents; these can be affirming, especially if the deceased was known for his or her sense of humor.

* Note special qualities of the bereaved person. This is the time for a big pat on the back. The loss of a loved one can be traumatizing and can make the bereaved question his or her own ability to handle things.

* Offer assistance. Do not use the phrase, “If there is anything I can do, please call me.” That puts too much of a burden on the grieving party. Offer something specific. Grocery shopping, watching children, running errands, walking a dog, cutting the lawn or any other kind of useful service is much appreciated. Include a time that you will call to arrange a visit.

* Close with a thoughtful word or phrase like, “Our love is always with you.” This is the time to express your support.


“We want people to express their feelings in a personal and sincere way, not in a formal stilted way,” Hilary Zunin says. “And we don’t want them to become condolence dropouts.”

After the funeral, close friends should continue to offer support, through letters, phone calls and social invitations.

“We had one man who was just so overwhelmed that he just kept saying no for six months after his wife died,” Leonard Zunin says. “But later he said that the support he felt from those invitations was so life-sustaining and comforting.”

Another woman who lost a young child kept the condolence letters in a basket beside her favorite reading chair.

“She would read them quite often at first,” Leonard Zunin said. “Later, just looking over at the basket full of letters made her feel better.”

There are also some don’ts when it comes to condolence.

Among the no-nos: “Be thankful you’re young and can have another child,” “You must get on with your life,” “It was really a blessing; you must be relieved,” “I heard you’re not taking it well” and “You are lucky to have had him for so long.”


“Before you blurt out something, think about what you are saying,” says Leonard Zunin. “But if you happen to say something inappropriate, apologize immediately and keep talking to your friend.

“Don’t let the possibility that you may make a mistake keep you from saying anything at all.”