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Condole: To express sympathy or sorrow; I condoled with himin his loss.
-- American Heritage Dictionary
I'm So Sorry
You read it in the newspaper or the telephone rings; the loved one of a friend has died. Among the thoughts that cross your mind are the desire to help in some way, to respond to your friend's sorrow and pain. The wish to condole is such a human trait, yet most of us are at a loss to acknowledge, in a caring and loving way, the grief of others. That's understandable. No one has ever taught us the art of condolence. And when we try to draw from our own experiences of loss, we find that those who have tried to condole us, friends and relations with the best of intentions, have frequently said or done exactly the wrong thing.
We want to comfort, to condole, but we don't know what to write, what to say, or what to do. Days fade into each other and the call never seems to be made; that letter just never seems to get written. Sound familiar?
What is it about our confrontation with another's anguish that causes a tightness in our chest, a constriction in our throat, the primal urge, tempered only by social form, to run? What causes the words to slip away when we are faced with another's grief? Is it overwhelming compassion, or is it the reflection of our own mortality mirrored in another's suffering? Sometimes, when we respond to the grief of others, our deepest fears surface and we are reminded of our own experiences with the pain of loss. Yet, we know intuitively that in offering comfort andsympathy to another, each of us gains.
Grieving embraces the mysterious, unknowable aspects of existence and has the possibility of lending insight into oneself, one's choices, and the profound human longing to understand. Those who grieve, as well as those who have died, can become catalysts to stimulate our perceptions, help us reassess our priorities, and enhance our lives. Just as we grow by accepting solace from others, when we offer comfort and understanding we also grow.
The rewards are intrinsic: We feel good; we feel human; we feel real. And it doesn't happen all the time, but there are moments when such service yields an experience that goes far beyond simply feeling good. In their inspiring book, How Can I Help?, Ram Dass and Paul Gorman recognize these times, "in service itself -- comforting a crying child, reassuring a frightened patient, bringing a glass of water to a bedridden elder -- when you feel yourself to be a vehicle of kindness, an instrument of love. There's more to the deed than the doer and what's been done. You yourself feel transformed and connected to a deeper sense of identity" (p. 39).
The origin of the word condolence holds a profound message. There are two Latin roots: com, meaning "together," and dolere, meaning "to grieve." Condoling actions reaffirm our bonds to humanity; they strengthen and enlarge each of us. Each word of comfort, each letter of condolence, each act of helpful service has the potential to serve not only as a message of sympathy but as a song of compassion and truth.
Helping Those Who Grieve
At a workshop on loss, Gretchen, a well-spoken and successful executive, poignantly shared her surprising feelings of inadequacy when confronted with a situation that called for her to respond to someone in grief. While in a business meeting, she received an urgent phone call. It was a good friend who had just heard terrible news. The friend's mother had been killed in a car accident. Gretchen related, "She was choking on her words, gasping and asking me to come, to her office and drive her home." Though the accident had happened several months before, Gretchen vividly recalled her profound anxiety. "I wanted to be sympathetic; after all, this was a close friend in pain. But the feeling that dominated wasn't sympathy; it was helplessness. I, who always had the right answers, was on the edge of panic. What could I do? How could I help?"
Like Gretchen, most people confronted with similar situations reel with unspoken questions and self-doubt: I have no idea what to do. What can I possibly say? Should I talk? What if I say the wrong thing? Should I go to them? Should I leave them alone? How can I best respond?
Over the years, we have explored numerous ways to provide comfort to others in times of loss. There is much to be learned from those who have experienced grief and those who have studied loss and the approaches that lend help, dignity,, and support to the bereaved. Of course, as with every art, there are aspects of condolence that cannot be taught, but a clear understanding of specific helping ways has the potential to enhance both your own confidence and the comfort you provide.
It's crucial to recognize that while condoling actions can ease the pain and provide support, they will not stop the bereaved's feeling of loss. It wouldn't be good if they did. Grief is a healing process that should be allowed to run its course. There are no quick fixes or easy answers. There are, however, many things you can do to help those in grief.
To Err Is Human ... Very Human
Above all else, don't withdraw from responding to another's loss for fear of writing, saying, or doing the "wrong thing."There will be times when you make a mistake or upon reflection you feel you could have said or done something better or more sensitively. Everybody makes mistakes...The Art of Condolence. Copyright © by Leonard M. Zunin. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.