“I’ve never killed anyone but I have read some obituaries with great satisfaction.” This quote, widely attributed to renowned lawyer, Clarence Darrow, confirms that human response to death has a range of emotions from despairing grief to a feeling of glee and contentment. Within this panorama of emotion, you must find an appropriate expression of sympathy, which, at times, is at variance with your true feelings, especially if the death involves a dysfunctional or feuding family or an office environment staffed by predatory idiots and humanoids.
Oftentimes, we learn of a death, or perhaps a notice is passed around the office that a co-worker or his close relative has passed. You barely know the co-worker and never met that relative but his position in the company is such that it is best not to ignore his loss. He just may be able to overlook you for advancement and you don’t want to violate the social protocols of office politics.
So, you elect to send a condolence card. These are available in specific relationships or of a generalized nature. The challenge is in finding one that’s appropriate not only to the particular death but also to your relationship with the person who has suffered the loss. It can’t be too flowery or dripping with purple prose. Don’t exaggerate who the decedent was. If he never progressed beyond the loading dock, don’t describe him as a captain of industry.
I think it’s best not to be empathetic at this time. For example, you too have lost the same relative so you “know exactly how they feel.” No, you really don’t. You have had time to rearrange your emotions around your loss while your friend or co-worker is in the throes of grief. Being empathetic tends to substitute your loss for that of your friend or co-worker and playing the empathy card is a common, if sub-conscious tactic of some people who have a continual need to be the center of attention. It’s a variation of Munchausen-By-Proxy Syndrome. In most instances, empathetic people are merely conveying that perhaps, they might better understand your loss. Empathy, whether written or spoken, must be used cautiously so as not to shift the spotlight.
If there’s one thing we can agree upon, finding the right words to say or write following a death can even leave a wordsmith tongue-tied or with writers’ block. We tend to look for words and phrases that can somehow resurrect the dead but there aren’t any. Write from the heart, keep it simple and most of all, keep it short.