Sadness is a lonely condition, and it’s one that at some time or other, all of us will experience. Only time can heal the pain of intense sadness, but the sympathy of others can go a long way to alleviating that sense of isolation that sadness can inflict. None of us can really know what another person is feeling, but our ability to recognise suffering in others and to want to ease the pain is at the heart of what makes us human. There are times when we all need sympathy and there are times when those close to us are in need of our sympathy. In the face of loss, words on a card may seem like an inadequate gesture, but a message of sympathy opens a window on a wall of loneliness. Even victims of the most appalling tragedy can he helped by the sympathy of a friend.
When something bad happens to someone we know, we are often at a loss for words. We can never know what another person is really feeling but we can be alert to their suffering and we can remind them that they are cared about and that they are not alone.
We will all experience the pain of losing someone dear to us and watching a friend or colleague deal with the death of a loved one can leave us feeling helpless and inadequate. Our desire to help and provide sympathy can easily lead us to write statements which are more about us than the person to whom we are sending our sympathy. Remember, a sympathy card is not just about what you are feeling, though there may be a place for that, nor is it an attempt to try and guess what the other person is feeling, it is an attempt to show that you care and that the recipient is not alone. What you write will partly depend on your relationship to the deceased. You may have known the person well but in a context with which the recipient of your sympathy is not familiar. If this is the case, explain your relationship to the deceased and use it as an opportunity to celebrate their life.
‘I worked closely with John for ten years and I couldn’t have wished for a more supportive and understanding colleague. His ability to build bridges and forge good working relationships was incredible and his sense of humour a real tonic. We will all miss that infectious laugh of his ringing out across the office. I remember one time…’
A sudden and unexpected death is particularly hard to write about. Do not dwell on how horrible the situation is, do not offer advice or predictions about how quickly someone will recover from their grief. Express your sadness simply, don’t try and write in an elevated or grandiose way and always think about the effect your words will have. You may be aware that the recipient of your sympathy is a person of religious faith, but if you don’t know, do not assume that that your views are necessarily shared and do not seek to impose them. Be supportive, offer practical help where it is appropriate. The bereaved are often flooded with sympathy at the outset, but then they are forgotten; a message of sympathy and support, months after the sad event, may be the most the most helpful message of all.
Sympathy in times of difficulty
It is not just at times of bereavement that we are in need of sympathy, life continually throws up disappointments and challenges. Serious illness, accidents, the break-up of a relationship, the loss of a job, can all cause us to feel depressed or question our self-worth. Receiving a sympathy card at just such a time can do much to raise our spirits. Although the situation is not as serious as a bereavement, it is still one that calls for sensitivity on your part. You do not want your sympathy card to be misconstrued as gloating about another’s misfortune, shadenfreude, as the Germans call it. Use your card to help the recipient feel positive about themselves.
‘I was so sorry to hear that you’ve been made redundant Sam. I know that after all the hard work that you’ve done for your company it must seem like a real kick in the teeth, but you have such ability and such an excellent track record, I’m sure that you will secure another post before too long.
Whatever the circumstances may be, your desire to express sympathy for the misfortune of another is a good impulse. Do not expect thanks or acknowledgement, the recipient may be too deep in their grief to respond, but you can be confident that your simple and sincere sentiments will have gone some way, however small, in helping them come to terms with their sadness and, most importantly, in feeling less alone.