A good condolence card

March 30, 2009

A couple of years ago, I found myself attending a lot more wakes/funerals. I had just started doing a lot more pastoral ministry and being involved in people’s lives means that you walk with them through everything. You don’t get to choose the weddings over the funerals. You attend them all.

I remember there was one week when I attended 2 wakes. After running around hunting for yet another condolence card at the last minute, I wondered if I should go out and get a box of them.  Just in case.  It seemed wrong somehow. As if you were wishing that more people would die. But the pragmatist in me won out and I purchased a box of plain, wake-appropriate cards.  The box sat on my bookshelf, to be opened in case of emergency.

I’ve long finished that box of cards but writing them never got any easier.  I never know what to say and every thing I write just sounds so empty.  But even so, I know they matter because I’ve needed to receive those cards before.  It’s not so much what is said as the trouble that is taken to say it.  And in the quietness of your bedroom, after the madness of the wake and the funeral, they are a source of comfort.  I’m all for the tangible expressions of affection.  Thinking happy thoughts from afar is useless.  I believe in articulating them.  God made me literate for a reason.

Anyway, I’m a researcher so I did some research over the weekend on the “key” elements of a good condolence card, which I’m posting here for future reference.

1. Acknowledge the loss and the name of the deceased.
2. Express your sympathy.
3. Note special qualities of the deceased.
4. Include a memory of the deceased.
5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths or special qualities.
6. Offer help, but make sure it is a specific offer.  (I had to comment on this one.  People always say – Call me if you need anything.  This is a cop out.  It places the burden on the grieving to decide and figure out what they need.  A specific offer is much more appreciated.)
7. End the letter with a thoughtful word, a hope, a wish or expression of sympathy e.g. “You are in my thoughts and prayers.”

I realized that sometimes the fear of doing the wrong thing during a sensitive time paralyzes us into inaction.  But it seems to me that this is not the right way.  I would always rather err on the side of having tried.  It may be methodical but I rather that than wringing my hands in despair.

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