How to Offer Condolences

With so many forms of communication available, it can be challenging to figure out the most appropriate means of contacting someone who has just experienced a death. The goal of contacting someone who has just experienced a death is to let the person know you’re thinking about him or her, and that he or she has your support and sympathy. To this end, the form of communication you choose should be the one that is least stressful or overwhelming for the bereaved to receive.

Managing your expectations

In general, when offering condolences, it’s important to keep in mind what the bereaved is going through, not only in terms of the emotional pain and difficulty he or she is likely experiencing, but also in terms of the complex and stressful funeral planning he or she may be dealing with. In light of these realities, the bereaved may not immediately respond to your contact. This is natural, and is generally not a reflection of the bereaved person’s feelings towards you but rather a response to the difficult situation he or she is in. 

Visiting

Unless the bereaved or someone working closely with the bereaved has invited you to his or her home or a family home, it is best not to show up unannounced. However, if you have been invited to the home (by the bereaved or someone working closely with the bereaved) or if the family is receiving people at their home, it is appropriate to stop by.

Before you visit: Before you visit, check to see if the bereaved or the family needs anything that you can bring (prepared food, toilet paper, trash bags, etc.). If you bring prepared food in your own dish, write your name on the bottom of the dish so that the family is easily able to return the dish to you. It is almost always appropriate to bring flowers with a condolence card.

During your visit: Between the time a death occurs and the funeral or memorial service takes place, there is often a lull in which the family is making arrangements but is otherwise unoccupied. Because of this, visits to the home can range in time, from a quick visit to hours spent with the family. Be prepared to stay at the home or leave the home as needed. You may also meet people at the family home who you don’t know. Be proactive and introduce yourself, share how you are related to the bereaved or the person who died, and try to make other guests feel as comfortable as you would like to feel. Also be prepared to help as needed. From straightening up the house to running errands to playing with children, there are likely going to be many things you can do to help while you’re visiting. If there aren’t things for you to do, however, don’t feel like you should be doing something and don’t badger the bereaved or the family to find things for you to do. Merely being with the family in their home may be enough.

For tips on how to help before the funeral, see our article How You Can Help a Grieving Person Before the Funeral.

Calling on the phone

If you are an intimate friend of the bereaved, calling to offer your condolences is appropriate, and may be a source of strength and support for the bereaved. However, if you are a more casual friend, a phone call may be overwhelming at an already stressful time. If you’re unsure whether or not you should call, it’s usually a good idea to call. 

Emailing

Sending an email expressing your condolences is always a good idea, as it allows the recipient to take his or her time responding. Though the bereaved may not be checking his or her email in the days immediately surrounding the death, he or she can respond when it’s most convenient.

Texting

As texting is becoming a more widespread form of communication, there are many people who might feel perfectly comfortable receiving a condolence text. However, many people still think of texting as a too-casual form of communication, especially for something as serious as a condolence note. Before you text the bereaved think about whether he or she would appreciate a text message or would feel like a text is insensitive. 

Sending a handwritten note

The most traditional method of reaching out, sending a letter or card expressing your condolences to the bereaved is always welcome, and gives the recipient plenty of time and space to respond. If you don’t have the mailing address for the bereaved or the family, try to get that information from someone other than those you’re sending the letter to, such as a friend or extended family member. Sending a handwritten note is often the most appropriate way to reach out when contacting an older person.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets

The public nature of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites makes offering condolences there tricky. As a rule, on social media sites you should only offer your condolences if the person has acknowledged the situation, or how he or she is feeling. You should not be the one who announces to the world that the person has just experienced a loss. That said, if the person has acknowledged the loss publicly, you should feel free to express your condolences in response. You may also send the person a private message expressing your condolences.

For advice on what to say (and what not to say) to someone who has just experienced a loss, see our article How to Express Sympathy: What to Say and What Not to Say.

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