Stumbling Over Words of Condolence

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Dear Hoopers,
On a recent trip to visit my parents, I ran into my eighth grade teacher while checking out of the grocery store. I asked “Mrs Smith” how she was and proceeded to ask her how her son “Danny” a classmate of mine was doing. A sad veil covered her face when she answered me that he had passed last year. I was in shock and stumbled to find the right words, and could only manage to tell her I was sorry. I learned later from my parents that Danny had died from a drug overdose. It wasn’t widely known and because of the circumstances had not been published in the paper. I feel horrible for the pain that I brought Mrs. Smith in that moment and feel like I need to do something to apologize and express my sincere condolences. Is this appropriate, or have I already caused her too much pain?
-Stumbling over words of condolences

Dear Stumbling Over Words,
Condolences are never easy. There really are no words and no gifts that you can offer to help reduce the pain of those in mourning. You also don’t know how they are feeling regarding the loss. There are so many ways that people process loss, which may lead them to be open to and appreciative of your words or feel increased pain from your reminder.

When the circumstances of the loss are tragic or unexpected, that can often make the loss more difficult and complicated to mourn. GIven the nature of Danny’s death, it is likely that mourning has been both difficult and complicated for his family. I think this is also reflected by your experience when you saw his mother in the store. Regardless of the circumstances of his death, condolences are often best kept genuine and simple. I wouldn’t worry about saying or doing anything more than your encounter in the store. I’m sure the words that you uttered in the moment were better than you remember and that Danny’s mother appreciated them more than you know.
-Dr. Ryan

Dear Stumbling Over Words,
Sorry to hear about Danny. You were caught off guard by this tragic news. I would have stumbled over my words as well. I would write Mrs. Smith a letter expressing your sincere condolences for the loss of her son. I would suggest sharing a special memory that you had with your classmate.

Don’t be hard on yourself.  If the interaction is weighing on you,  it is certainly appropriate to write a sympathy message and will allow you to communicate the message you really want to get across.