The etiquette of sympathy: What to do when someone you know suffers a loss

Date Published: 
December, 2005
Original Author: 
Lydia Ramsey
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, December 2005

Lydia Ramsey, an expert in business etiquette, became an expert in grief when her husband died. She distilled her new, painfully gained knowledge into a guide to "the etiquette of sympathy," hoping it will give people the confidence to reach out to the bereaved.

On a beautiful spring day last April, I was driving home to Savannah from Charlotte after welcoming my first grandchild into the world. Little Samuel Carroll Niles was whole and healthy, and life was good—almost. My husband, Hank, had suffered a serious fall in October and was unable to accompany me. He seemed to be recovering, but I was still concerned about him.

I was nearly home when my cell phone rang. The call was from a friend who had stopped by to visit Hank and who had become alarmed when there was no response at the door. I drove into my driveway with the lights of the emergency medical services truck flashing in my rearview mirror. On May 11, I lost my warm, wonderful, gentle husband. Within a three-week period, I had become both a grandmother and a widow.

As I attempted to get back to life "as normal,” I found that my grief had its own timetable. When I was able to write again, I decided that I needed to address this issue, one that confronts everyone at some point, personally and professionally.

Doing something is important
It is often difficult to know what to say or do when someone dies. I want to share what I have learned in the hopes that it that may help when someone you know—a client, a colleague, a coworker or a friend—loses a loved one.
It is important to do something. Many of us are so uncomfortable with death that we don't do anything at all. We are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

• Attend the funeral or the memorial service if you can. Your presence offers inestimable support. Even if you can't speak directly to the family members, you can sign the guest book. The family will read through it over and over again, and they will know you cared enough to be there.

• Write a note as soon as you can. Personal notes of condolence are a source of great comfort—more than you can imagine. I was moved by the different ways people expressed their sympathy. There were those who simply spoke of their sincere sorrow for my loss. There were those who described what Hank had meant to them personally. Others wrote about the character and personality of this special person I had lost. I was grateful for each and every note.

Commercial sympathy cards are equally cherished. It was clear to me that the commercial cards I received had been carefully chosen. Each one came with an additional sentence or two written by the sender, which is important. Be sure to take the time to add a short personal note when you send a sympathy card.

• Send flowers unless the family specifies otherwise. Send them to the family, the funeral home, the church or the gravesite. Flowers add warmth and are visual reminders of the support of friends. The flowers and personal gifts that continued to arrive in my home weeks after the funeral confirmed that neither I nor my pain had been forgotten.

• Take food and other items needed for daily living to the house.  The last thing the grieving family can think about is grocery shopping and meal preparation.

One thoughtful neighbor called me and said, "I'm going to the grocery store. What do you need?" My response was a baffled, ''I have no idea." This kind, generous person brought me everything from fresh fruit and vegetables to paper towels and toilet paper. She even included pet food for the four-legged members of the family.

• Make a contribution to the charities indicated by the family. Honor the wishes of the deceased. Give to the causes they chose unless the obituary states that contributions should be made to the donor's favorite charity. If yon missed the funeral notice and don't have that information, call the funeral home—it will have a record .

• Be specific when you offer to help. Most people say, "If there is anything you need, call."  While their intentions are genuine, it can be difficult for the family to know what is a reasonable request to make of particular people.

When our assistant rector said those words to me, my face must have registered what I was thinking—"Like what?"—because he immediately followed up with a verbal list of all the things I could call on him or other church members to do.

One neighbor offered to walk the dog. Another offered to handle household repairs if anything broke down or stopped working. Someone else volunteered to pick up family members from the airport. Once people were clear on what they could do for me, when I needed something, I knew exactly where to turn.

• Make a note of the date of the death. Honor the anniversary with a note or a phone call that says you haven't forgotten.

It is not necessary to do or say something grand. Any gesture you make is comforting. A simple word, a hug, a phone call, a card or an offer to run an errand are a few ways of the many ways you can express your sympathy.

Keep in mind that great authors, poets and thinkers have written for centuries about grief and loss, searching for just the right words to console themselves or someone else. Yet when all is said and done, there are no words that can accomplish this. Sometimes the best thing you can say is simply, "I'm sorry."



We went through the same time period as you (my Mom went from first-time Grandmother to widow in three weeks - and me from new mom to fatherless at the same time) in January/February of this year. Having had front-row seats to this situation, you have my deep condolences.
Thank you for writing this. Our new next-door neighbors (we just moved in) just lost their wife/mother yesterday, and I didn't know what, exactly, a good thing to do would be, because we don't know them yet. I think they may reject food (you know, from strangers), but since my Mom already thought to give flowers to her even before she died, maybe that'd be good. Plus an offer of help-if-wanted.
Thanks, again.