CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Several years ago, a friend's mother was killed in a head-on collision. I remember my heart aching for her. I wanted to help, but felt totally lost. What do you do or say when someone dies?
Unfortunately, many of us never consider this until we are blindsided. While etiquette in a time of loss is an uncomfortable subject, knowing the appropriate thing to do or say before faced with the death of a friend or family member can help alleviate some of the feelings of helplessness.
What do you do?
According to Mary Mitchell, author and founder of The Mitchell Organization, there is really only one thing you can do wrong, and that is to do nothing. It is not so much what you "say" but what you "do," Mitchell says.
The personal justification of saying (or thinking), "I was at a loss of what to do or say, so I didn't do anything," is no excuse. Most of the time the grieving don't remember exactly what is said, but they do remember those who made the effort and are likely grateful for any gesture. The overall guideline is to communicate in some way sympathy and support. If you don't, Mitchell adds, then it will not be easy for the grieving to overlook the fact that you ignored their personal tragedy and life-changing event.
What do you say?
Most etiquette experts believe that a handwritten note of condolence is preferred to a store-bought card. However, if you do send a card, include a personal message inside.
It is not necessary to write a note if you personally extend your sympathy during visitation. You should, however, send a note if you just signed the registry during the visitation and left without speaking with the bereaved.
If you know the bereaved well, then call them as soon as you find out the unfortunate news. Find out if you can offer any assistance -- such as child care, making phone calls, running any errands. But be prepared to be a good listener if they want to talk about their loss and to express their grief. Some etiquette experts advise against calling if you do not know the family well. It could be a bit intrusive to them. The bereaved then has the chore of participating in polite conversation (no doubt, the same conversation that they have probably had several times that day).
In her book "How to Say It: Choice Words, Phrases, Sentences and Paragraphs for Every Situation," Rosalie Maggio says the most common mistakes well-intentioned people make when expressing sympathy are glossing over what has happened; excessively dramatic language such as, "This is the worst tragedy I have ever heard"; or offering inappropriate advice such as:
"He (or she) is better off."
"Be happy for what you had."
"You can have another child."
"It is a blessing in disguise."
"He (or she) is out of his (or her) misery."
"This is nature's way."
"It was God's will."
"Death is a blessing."
"You can always remarry."
"At least you have another child."
"It happened for the best."
"Something good will come of this."
"Move into an apartment."