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Death Sympathy Etiquette: When to Send Condolences September 8, 2021

grief, when to send condolences

When someone you care about is grieving the loss of a loved one, it might be difficult to know the proper death sympathy etiquette and sending condolences. Is it better to hurry over right when you hear the news, maybe with a casserole or other easy-to-reheat meal? Or should you wait until after the funeral and other activities have concluded to try to connect with your friend or family member? Knowing when to send condolences will change with each person you wish to comfort, because each person and each circumstance is different. 

No matter how well you know the person you wish to offer condolences to, to know how to best help someone grieve, you first have to understand the etiquette of sympathy and death as well as the stages of grief. Then, you can combine that knowledge with what you already know about the person you’re thinking of and come to a decision about when you should offer condolences after their loved one has died.

What are the Stages of Grieving?

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross was a Swiss-American psychiatrist who is known for her work in near-death and grieving research and scholarship. Her now-famous “Kübler-Ross model” outlines five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These stages were originally developed to describe the range of feelings a terminally ill patient goes through; but because grieving family and friends go through a similar process when a loved one passes, the Kübler-Ross model has also long been used to understand how a surviving person moves through loss. 

Here’s a quick summary of each of these stages:

Denial: the surviving person believes there’s been a mistake and that surely their loved one is still alive.

Anger: When it’s clear to the person grieving that their loved one has died, the denial can no longer continue. When the grieving person realizes this, feelings of fairness and blame start to appear and as a result, the person grieving lashes out at people close to them. 

Bargaining: This stage includes the surviving person pleading for their loved one to be alive again. For survivors, this often looks like offering to trade places with the deceased. 

Depression: As the grieving party works through their acceptance that their loved one has died, a keen awareness of their own mortality sharpens. They might wonder what the point of life is if we are only going to die, or why should they love someone if that person will die. 

Acceptance: The last stage is the one in which the grieving party comes to accept their new reality in a way that allows them to move through life again. This doesn’t mean things are “normal.” It simply means that the person’s emotions have become more balanced and they begin to ease back into the life they knew before their loved one passed. 

Sometimes, when we see someone we love moving through the stages of grief, it can be difficult to know how to best help them. It’s normal to want to offer comfort, but you might feel that you don’t know what to say when sending condolences, or when to send condolences. You might even worry about whether you should send condolences at all. All of these questions about death sympathy etiquette are emotionally taxing and the answers will vary depending on the person grieving. 

Because the duration of each stage of grief varies from person to person, it may not be obvious which stage your loved one is currently in. Grieving can last for years after the death of a loved one, though you might not always be able to see exactly what your friend or family member is feeling at any given moment. For that reason, it might be wise to think of grieving as a process rather than a checklist of emotions that one might be able to “complete.”

What is Death Sympathy Etiquette?

The impulse to comfort a friend or family member who is hurting after the loss of their loved one is rife with questions, including: is there a right way to offer condolences? When should I send condolences? What should I say in a condolence card? The questions we often ask ourselves about how and when we should offer help or condolences when a person is grieving the death of a loved one can be categorized as death sympathy etiquette. 

Of course, the “right” thing to do will vary depending on your unique circumstance. If you are a very close friend or family member, you might be tasked with helping with arrangements or with activities your friend or family member cannot do because their focus is now on the death of their loved one (for example, you might be the person picking up a child from school when their mother is a the funeral home to plan her loved one’s service). In these instances, offering condolences looks different than it does for a casual acquaintance or someone who isn’t privy to the grieving party’s daily obligations. 

If the person grieving can tell you what they need, the best way to serve their needs is to help however you can. Grocery shopping, running carpool, answering the phone, turning people away at the door, and countless other tasks that they simply don’t have the capacity to do are all ways you can offer your condolences and help them as they grieve. 

But if you’re a more casual acquaintance or someone who isn’t familiar with the daily ins and outs of their life, it’s likely best to offer more traditional condolences. These usually come in the form of food, company, and written messages. 

death etiquette sympathy, sympathy etiquette,

When to Send Condolences

In our years of working with grieving families, we’ve seen how the flurry of activities immediately following the death of a loved one can postpone feelings of grief. When someone is so busy taking care of end-of-life details and planning services, they simply don’t have time to sit with their feelings. 

It’s also true that, often, grieving people postpone their own emotions because they are focused on how others are feeling. Some maintain their composure so they can make sure things run smoothly or so they can thank the friends and family who’ve come to offer their support. This busy-ness can suppress those very strong feelings at the beginning of the grieving process. 

This is important to recognize, because it can influence when you send condolences. So often, there is a barrage of condolences immediately after the death of a loved one. There might be too many well-meant casseroles to eat and so many visits that they become a blur. 

However, we’ve also seen that as time passes and well-meaning friends and family members get back to their everyday lives, the void that a grieving person feels intensifies. No longer are there distractions to blunt the pain, there are fewer visitors and phone calls.

This can be a good time to reach out to someone who has lost a loved one. Maybe treat them to a meal (or have one delivered), take them for coffee, or simply take a walk together. 

What to Say When Sending Condolences

The same is true of written condolences: there tend to be many immediately following a death, but they taper off as time passes. You might consider waiting for a few weeks to send a greeting card or a note; not only will your grieving friend probably need to hear from a loved one during that time, but it will give you time to better decide what you want to say.

In general, there are a few etiquette rules to consider when sending a sympathy card:

  • Do tell your grieving friend or family member how much the deceased was loved and appreciated
  • Do share a memory of the deceased if you have one that will bring the grieving person comfort
  • Do keep it simple. If you don’t know what to say, a simple “I am so sorry” or “I am thinking of you” are fine.
  • Don’t write something like “I know how you feel” (grieving is different for everyone) or “time will heal” (it might seem as if you’re minimizing their grief) or “call me if you need me” (this is overwhelming and can be more of a burden than a blessing

We have helped countless families and friends after the death of a loved one. If we can help you or someone you love, please reach out to speak with us.