The Lost Art of Condolences

A black card with With Sympathy written on it and a photo of the deceased, Matiku Nyitambe

by Rev. Terry Davis

Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation on November 13, 2016

As some of you know, yesterday I officiated the memorial service of Northwest member June Mask. June was 86 years old and she died peacefully in her sleep after a long decline in health due to Parkinson’s disease. Her three adult children all shared stories during the service about their mother’s life and her personality, helping to create a fuller picture of June for those of us who hadn’t known her for as long or as well.

After the service was over, we gathered in the Lobby for food and conversation, while a slideshow of snapshots taken over the course of June’s life played on the flat screen TV on the wall. The photos of June progressed chronologically, from early childhood to college, from newlywed to mother, and finally, through the middle and last years of her life.

June’s husband Phil, who is now 89 years old, sat in his wheelchair, directly in front of the screen, completely absorbed in the slideshow. He was eager to tell me and the others gathered around him something about each picture.

“This was June riding her first horse,” Phil said with excitement, as a black and white photo of a young child with dark bobbed hair and white stockings appeared on the screen.

“Here is June on the family farm.”

“This is us at Auburn University.”

“There’s June in front of our first house.”

“That baby on June’s lap is our oldest daughter Marilyn.”

“That’s when June and I sailed a boat in Maine.”

“Here we are at our 60th wedding anniversary party.” And so on.

And when the slideshow came to its final photo of a smiling June, Phil pointed to the TV and said, “Hang on . . . it’s going to play again.” And, then he sat so still and waited as the last image of June faded out, the screen went dark for a few seconds, and then the title slide with a black-and-white headshot of a teenaged June re-appeared, signaling the beginning of the loop.

I stood next to Phil as he watched the story of his wife unfold again, his blue eyes and his commentary still bright. And, then the show ended and looped once more, and Phil watched it again . . . and then again . . . and again.

And, why wouldn’t he? June was the woman with whom he shared nearly his entire adult life. June’s Parkinson’s disease slowly took away many of her abilities, including – finally – her ability to speak. And, so, I wondered if Phil had been grieving the gradual loss of his wife for a long while.

Phil seemed wistful, and I held his hand and said “It looks like you shared a beautiful life together. I’m sorry she’s gone now.”

I’m sorry she’s gone now. That seemed like the right thing to say at the time, if only because it felt simple and genuine. I had sent Phil a sympathy card when I first learned of June’s death, and I later visited him at his home. However, despite my training and experience as a former hospital chaplain and as a congregational minister, I’m admittedly still never really sure if I’m doing enough or saying the right thing when it comes to expressing condolences.

Apparently, I’m not alone. Writer Bruce Feiler says that the art of condolences, especially written expressions of sympathy, is something many people – including himself – could use a little help with.

He shared his own painful awareness of his shortcomings in a recent New York Times column, writing:

Recently, a teenage boy in my community committed suicide. I immediately sat down to write the parents a sympathy note. I pulled out a monogrammed card, placed it on the desk in front of me, and proceeded to stare at it for the next two hours. Though I have been a professional writer for almost 30 years, I could think of absolutely nothing to say.1)“Finding the lost art of condolences,” by Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, as reprinted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

Feiler is critical of what he considers to be the lightweight methods our culture relies on these days to express sympathy. He writes:

Offering a written expression of condolence . . . used to be a staple of society . . .  But these days, as Facebooking, Snapchatting or simply ignoring friends has become fashionable, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddled at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. “Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.”2)“Finding the lost art of condolences,” by Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, as reprinted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

Feiler offers several suggestions on ways we might offer condolences to someone who is grieving. They include:

  1. Don’t be afraid to admit that you’re at a loss for words;
  1. Avoid drawing comparisons between what the griever may be feeling and your own life (in other words, be a good listener and don’t make this about you);
  1. Share a positive memory;
  1. Don’t dodge the “D” words – including dead, died or death (something that both David Morgen and Daniel the Leaf seemed to do well);
  1. Write a real sympathy note versus dashing off an e-mail or posting a social media comment;
  1. And, wait a few weeks or even a few months to reach out to the person grieving (in other words, give the griever a chance to get through the initial emotional shock of his or her loss).3)“Finding the lost art of condolences,” by Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, as reprinted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tuesday, October 4, 2016.

These tips seem pretty straightforward when it comes to offering condolences to someone grieving the death of person or pet. But what about when we or others are grieving other kinds of deaths or deep losses – such as the death of a marriage or a friendship, or the loss of a vision or dream? What is the best way to offer comfort and support to those who have lost something profoundly meaningful?

This is what has been on my mind all week following Tuesday’s presidential election. I have received e-mails and text messages from several of you, expressing shock, anger, despair, and fear . . . the kinds of emotions we typically feel when we’ve experienced a death. Many people are grieving and, across our country, groups have gathered with pain and anger to protest the outcome.

Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian at Rice University, notes that this kind of reaction is unchartered territory for a modern American presidency. He said:

One would have to go back to Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 to see these types of mass demonstrations in response to the election of a president . . . [Back then], President Lincoln won about 40 percent of the popular vote and wasn’t even on the ballot in some Southern states. Spontaneous protests broke out after [his] victory.

While I’m aware that many are hurting, I’m also aware that there are many others in our country who are thrilled about the election results. They include some of my family members, some of my Facebook friends, and a few members of this congregation. These people that I love finally feel acknowledged and heard after many years of suffering with policies and laws that they felt were terribly wrong. They now feel hopeful again about the future.

And, so what do we do now? What should we say to those who are grieving? How do we come together after such a divisive campaign that challenged core values and beliefs on both sides? What do we do when there’s so much fear and distrust?

In my sermon last week, I talked about the grace of good sportsmanship and its ability to keep us all in the game and at the table no matter whether we win or lose.

Striving to be good sports may help us avoid any potential external conflicts and start us down the path of healing. However, I’m aware that more may need to be done to address the pain many are feeling on the inside. And, in my experience, an inside job requires a spiritual solution.

As Unitarian Universalists, what might be our spiritual solution to the feelings of loss and even death many of us are experiencing?

Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, offered a pastoral message this past week that might serve as our beginning. He wrote:

The election is finally over. Most of us are shocked, even horrified, by the results. We live in a nation whose deep divisions have been exposed. The wounds of this election will not heal soon. Many of us are emotionally exhausted and deeply offended by what we have experienced. 

This is a time to take a deep breath and a long view. Our role as religious progressives committed to democracy, compassion and human dignity is to help bend our culture toward justice. Think of issues like marriage equality and civil rights. The laws change when attitudes change. Our role is to help change attitudes, to lead by example.

Fear, anger, racism and xenophobia have created fertile ground for demagogues. Our voice is going to matter in the coming years. Our role, as always, will be to be a powerful voice for compassion and civil rights. Perhaps, at times, we may even be called upon to join with others to resist flagrant injustice. 

For now, let us reflect and draw strength from one another. Together we can recover. Together we can shape the future.

I understand his message to mean that we mustn’t lose hope . . . that those of us who feel as though everything we value was trampled upon in this election must not give up working for those values we hold so dear.

Again, let me say that I recognize that not everyone feels the same about the way things turned out on Tuesday. However, while I respect the right of each person to vote his or her conscience, I will also say that I will not stand by and do nothing while women, African Americans, Latinos/Latinas, Muslims, refugees, LGBT persons, and persons with disabilities continue to experience hate, violence and discrimination in our country.  I will not stand by and do nothing while our climate grows warmer and the environment that we and all living things depend upon becomes more threatened.

So, rather than fight the election outcome – which was the result of our democratic process – instead, I’m encouraging you to join me and your fellow Northwest members in continuing to dismantle the systems that perpetuate oppression of people and our planet.

For example, we can keep our weekly Share the Plate program going strong by making healthy annual pledges and supporting our annual fundraisers. Northwest’s Share the Plate program involves giving away at least half of our Sunday collection every single week. For a congregation our size, this is so generous!  

Do you know that Northwest has given away thousands of dollars since Share the Plate started a little more than a year ago? You have supported organizations that are working to protect the environment, help resettle refugees, build homes for low-income families, and support women’s health and reproductive justice, as well as address many other issues. We have to keep this going!

Let’s also keep learning about the ways we can build understanding for and support of our Muslim brothers and sisters. You have already started your journey of education and support by participating in the Islamophobia programs that were held here last month. A group of you from Northwest also attended a Muslim service for the first time at a local mosque. As we build relationships with those who practice Islam and increase our knowledge of this faith, we can become allies for them and advocate for their fair treatment in our country.

We must also partner with other UUs to address issues of racial inequality, law enforcement and criminal justice reform, immigration reform, gun violence reduction, and more. The North Georgia Unitarian Universalist Social Justice cluster, which met at Northwest yesterday, is comprised of members of congregations from across our region. The cluster is working to identify issues that we’d like to work on together, recognizing that our UU voices and influence are stronger when we partner for change.

You can see Northwest Social Justice Ministry Team leader Tony Barbagallo or Board member Dave Zenner if you’d like more information.

The election left many of us – but not all of us – deeply shaken this week. While it may have seemed like the death of our hopes and dreams, I believe that will be the reality only if we stop working for those values we hold dear.

And, so if you are grieving today, let’s take the time to honor your pain. Let’s practice the art of condolences with one another by listening with an open heart and by refraining from offering advice or quick fixes. As Rev. Peter Morales said, let’s take a deep breath and give each other the space we need to heal.

Let’s keep an open mind . . . and let’s not lose hope! Little by little, I believe we will get there. May it be so. Amen.

References   [ + ]

1, 2, 3. “Finding the lost art of condolences,” by Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, as reprinted in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Tuesday, October 4, 2016.