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07 February 2011

How to send condolences, by Andrew Tobias

The main thing to say is that it’s “pass/fail.”  As my wise friend Patty Marx, the writer, explained to me, “People agonize over what to say, as if there’s something they could say that would actually make it better” – certainly I always agonize in these situations – “when in fact there’s nothing to say except, thinking of you in this difficult time.”  Or words to that effect.  Sure, there will be the occasional piece of amazing advice, or the perfect anecdote or shared memory.  But basically, Patty says, you either send a note (and pass) or become paralyzed trying, as I so often have (and fail).

Now that I’ve experienced it from the other end, I plan to fail less often.  (And to send nicer flowers.)  Not least because it’s now okay to do it by email.  Sure, it’s classier to send a handwritten note.  But I have lost the ability to write anything legible by hand.  And if one does send a physical note, one sort of puts an obligation on the recipient to reply in kind, and, well, I’m sorry, but I’m responding by email.

If you’re close to the bereaved – or someone important, like CEO of the company she works for – don’t be shy about calling the day of the event, as soon as you hear.  If you’re (both?) lucky, you’ll get voice mail.  But whether you do or get her actual ear, Patty’s advice holds: it’s not so much what you say (“I’m so sorry!  Is there anything I can do?”) as the fact that you summoned the courage to call.  Again, something I have too often failed to do in the past.

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