What to say? What to do?

I’ve recently been on the receiving end of condolences and it has caused me to give some thought to the way in which we deal with having friends who are in mourning.

The conclusion of a life is a strange time for all those involved, not just immediate family but friends, acquaintances, work colleagues and even people we see casually or sparingly throughout life – the friendly dry-cleaner, the nice woman at the deli.  No one really knows what to say, what to do or how to act, including the person doing the grieving.

I had this pointed out to me afresh the other day.  Someone I haven’t seen or spoken to since all this happened sent me an instant message saying “how are you? how’s the family?”. I, in my still slightly foggy state, couldn’t remember when we’d last spoken and couldn’t actually remember if he knew my news. What to do?  It seemed blunt to just come out with it and stupid to beat around the bush so I took a half-way approach and said that I was fine but mourning was a tiring business.  He, because he knew of the underlying situation, understood immediately and sent his condolences but, poor thing, was then completely stymied about what to say next. He felt badly because to his mind he didn’t have the ‘right’ words. He felt like he should say something profound.

Should I write?

That exchange got me thinking about writing letters of condolence.  I think many people are put off because they don’t know what to say.  Somehow they think they need to be profound and have the ‘right’ words, or they think they’ll sound stupid, overly-sentimental or that the person they are writing to won’t want to be reminded of the situation.

I can only speak to my own experience, but I feel sure it’s not unique: it was lovely to get notes, letters and emails; it was lovely to know that the person I loved, respected, admired and missed so much, was loved and missed by others and that friends had me in their thoughts.

If you find yourself in a situation where someone you care about has lost someone they care about, write to them.  They will, eventually, be glad to have it; it may even be passed to other generations – we still have all the letters written to my grandmother after my grandfather died and they give me an insight into someone who exists only on the edges of my memory.

If you think you would struggle with what to say in your letter, card or email (in these cases hand-written is so much nicer, but email works too), here are some places to start – it’s not necessarily easy, but it’s not necessarily meant to be:

If you knew the person who died well and spent time with them:

  • Include a few of your memories of them, such as: “I remember when we…” or “I still laugh when I think of …”
  • Talk about their character or personality “I always admired the way he…”
  • Don’t be afraid to say that you too will miss them: “I’ll miss the way she brightened up a room”.

If you really only know the person or people left behind simply speak to their sense of loss and/or use things that you know about the person who has died:

  • You can use phrases such as,  “I know you will miss his tenacity and strength of character” or simply, “I know how much you will miss her.”

There are a few things that it’s best to steer clear of, at least for the first while:

  • Talking about it being a release; best for the person who has gone; that they have been relieved of their suffering.  All this may be true but it doesn’t take away from the reality that a much loved person was taken “too soon”, for whatever reason – keeping in mind that too soon can be from 0 to 102 – and that this pill is a bitter one to swallow.
  • Be careful about religious references unless you know the strength and depth of the person’s faith; grieving can test these things, so tread lightly.

Should I call?

Telephone calls are more difficult and unless you are very close to the person grieving stick to writing a note.  Aside from the fact that there are many arrangements that need to be made in the first few weeks (all by telephone) it is also a much more wearisome thing for the person having to say “I’m fine thank you” or “We’re about as you’d expect” and so on.

When they are ready for calls, they will let you know.

What do I say?

Often times running into someone in mourning is the most difficult thing of all. Grief is the elephant in the room. Should you ask them how they are? Give them your condolences? Give them a hug? Tell them it will be get better with time?

The best thing to do is judge the situation carefully – the better you know someone the easier that is. These few tips might help no matter how well you know the person:

  • By all means, give your condolences but keep the encounter short, not ‘rude short’ just not prolonged. There are only so many ways for someone to say they are fine when they don’t mean it.
  • Be careful about asking how they are, sometimes the mere question is enough to provoke upset (usually unexpectedly for all concerned).  You can get around this (if you feel you need to ask the question) by asking about other family members and working your way back to the person in front of you.
  • Hugs are great if you are somewhere out of the way and if you know the person well, otherwise, steer clear.  Someone gave me a hug at the office – quite unexpectedly – and it really threw me.
  • The thing that should be avoided is telling someone things will get better with time. Things will, but no one in that situation believes it and all it means is that they have to summon up the strength to agree with you.

Should I bake a pie, make a casserole, send food?

One of the loveliest things that someone did for us was send a grocery order.  An old and cheerished friend went online and ordered all the things we had loved and shared in my parents’ kitchen over the years.  It made us all cry but it also made us laugh as we unpacked and commented on her choices.

Others made food or brought over good coffee or dropped things off on the front porch.  It was all welcome – we certainly weren’t going to be cooking, even eating was touch-and-go; having the food in the fridge ensured that if we were hungry we could eat.

Kindness is the key

As I said at the beginning, the conclusion of a life is a strange time for all those involved.  The key thing to remember is to be kind.

To the person in mourning: Be kind to yourself. Don’t put pressure on yourself to be happy (or sad), to go out or stay home – you get a pass, pretty much, to do what you need to do for yourself.

To the friends, family and others who surround the person grieving: Be kind. Mourning doesn’t finish at a funeral, it merely begins. It is a very strange time and no one ever knows how it will affect them; some days are good, some are less so.  Give the person the space they need, or the company they crave but feel they can’t ask for.  Keep in touch but don’t force; call but don’t bombard.  Make sure they know they are loved and supported and you will be doing your job as a friend.


Free to be you and me? Yes, but there’s a but.

The subject of what to wear and how to behave at work can be a tricky one, especially in our increasingly casual and laissez-fair world. So, I was interested to read that Ernst & Young decided it was a subject that needed to be addressed. The firm of accountants recently hired a consultant to run seminars for more than 400 women on staff about appropriate clothes, make-up, jewellery and colours for the workplace. Not to be outdone, Leeds Metropolitan University has put together an etiquette guide for new members of staff, which points out that, among other things, licking one’s knife at the table is a definite no-no.

The impact that our clothing and actions have on those around us, and indeed ourselves, is something I find fascinating. What I find even more fascinating is that some people think it’s inconsequential; either that it doesn’t really matter or that they should just be allowed to ‘be who they are’, no matter what. It’s a fair point in some ways, we should be allowed to be who we are, but there’s a but. There’s always a but. In this case the but is that first impressions matter.

If you choose to dress or behave in a manner that is completely outside the norm of your given environment – too casual or too formal – then you’re relying on others’ abilities to see through a veneer (sloppy, aloof, indifferent, etc.), in order to finally get to ‘you’ and recognise your value. In an ideal world most people might take the time and make the effort do that. In our world, first impressions count, and although we should (and to our collective credit, sometimes do) make the effort to get past the veneers – be they good, bad or indifferent – we are often too busy or too tired to do so.

Anne Freden, chair of Ernst & Young’s women’s network said of the training, “The firm doesn’t view this as something that’s nice to have, but as an integral part of business strategy. There is a huge number of capable and talented women at Ernst & Young looking to maximise their achievement in the firm and in their career, and looking for the skills and tips and tools to do that.”

Although it may not always be our preference to conform to the ‘norm’ or to the corporate life, it’s to our benefit to make the effort in the first instance rather than relying on others to make a double effort in the end.

‘That one…’

I still maintain what I wrote at the bottom of my very first post: this blog isn’t meant to be about politics, it’s about manners, modern life and how we mix the two. However, given the type of politics to which we are being subjected and given the fact that our manners speak volumes about how we conduct ourselves, in public and in private, I can’t ignore Senator McCain’s two word remark from the second debate.

Some are suggesting that referring to Senator Obama as ‘that one’ was a slip of the tongue; I suggest that a politician with Senator McCain’s experience doesn’t make that kind of mistake.

Referring to a person as ‘that one’ insults and dehumanises them – if this is how Senator McCain treats people with whom he is in opposition then he is a dangerous person to have as the leader of a nation. Senator McCain is fond of pointing out that Senator Obama would sit down with the leaders of potentially hostile nations without pre-conditions. More worrying, in my view, is that based on past behaviour and the unshielded contempt he showed for his opponent, Senator McCain wouldn’t sit down with them at all.

A man I greatly admired once said that ‘diplomacy is the art of letting the other guy have your way’. A clever, cunning and accurate description if ever there was one, but you can’t achieve that if you can’t at least mask your disdain and refrain from insulting the other person or group.

Manners not only matter but they tell us a great deal about the person behind them and how that person may behave in the future. Given his past behaviour I’m fairly confident that I don’t want to see what a McCain future holds.

Name calling

Think what you might of Sarah Palin’s politics, she has a great deal to learn about manners.

Let me set the scene: Governor Palin and Senator Biden meet in the centre of the stage before the debate and as they shake hands the Governor leans towards the Senator and says, “Hey, can I call you Joe?”.

Let me get a few things out of the way right off the bat: this is not about politics, it’s about politeness; it’s not about age, sex or status, it’s about manners.

There are few things in our lives that truly belong to us and that are ours to oversee as we would like, our name is one of those things. I have no doubt that Senator Biden would have happily offered Governor Palin the use of his first name, but it was bad manners for the Governor to ask for its use, and particularly bad manners to do so in public.

And no, it wasn’t folksy charm, it was rude. It was designed to put her opponent on the back foot, which some would say is ok in a debate. But even in a debate, the rules of polite behaviour apply. It was also designed so that she would come across as ‘one of the people’, which I find extraordinary. I would think that most people would want their potential Vice President to behave in a way that they could use as an example to their children – since when did lack of manners or education become a badge of honour?

[A note about this blog: it’s new. It isn’t intended to be about Sarah Palin, or politics, it’s intended to be about life and manners and how we deal with both – if politics finds its way into this blog it’s because it’s crossed into that sphere.]

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