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The Art of Offering Condolence

College English professor Jess Decourcy Hinds, of Brooklyn, New York, lost her father to a painful battle with bone cancer. Following his death, she was bothered by the central messages of most sympathy cards she received. Many of the cards tried their best to talk her out of the grieving process. At best, the personal notes simply sought to distract her. Someone inquired, "Are you applying to grad school?" Another asked, "How's your teaching going?" Still more questions came her way: "Are you still renovating your apartment? Are you keeping busy?"

What Hinds really wanted was for people to say, "I'm sorry for your loss." She wanted to slowly move through a process of sadness; she certainly wasn't ready for a chirping, cheery person!

Hinds suggests some guidelines for the art of condolence. Simply begin with, "I am so sorry for your loss." Then ask the crucial questions: "How are you? How are you feeling?" Don't tell someone how he or she should feel. You also shouldn't say, "I can't imagine what you're going through." This often only comes across as, "This is too hard for me; I don't want to think about it."

She concludes with a look at the behavior of elephants: "How do we support people in mourning? We can learn from the elephants. Elephants are known to grieve in groups. They loop trunks to support the bereaved. Like elephants, we should remain connected and open to mourners' sorrow longer than a two-hour memorial service. Grieving is private, but it can be public … we need to be open to mourners. We need to look each other in the eye and say, 'I am so sorry.'"

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