How to choose a sympathy card: Thoughts from a grief counselor

I had to pick out a sympathy card yesterday, for some wonderful people who’d had an unexpected and devastating loss. So I went to Walgreens where I found a section full of flowery and reassuring messages: Celebrating the Home-going; A Journey with the Lord; Where there is sadness, love plants a garden…

I found several messages there myself, first about the name of the section. “Sympathy” is a word I dismissed in the first week of counseling graduate school. It is a looking-down-on word that says “I feel sorry for you (and I’m so glad it’s not me).” I am schooled in empathy instead, which says “I feel with you (and I know it could be me, in fact it will be me sooner or later).”

Who of us wants sympathy, to be the object of pity? Who doesn’t want empathy, to be the recipient of comfort and connection?  Sympathy separates; empathy joins.

The next message I found among the cards is that this is no time to be bossy. People in grief do not need instruction about how to feel. If they had the energy, they would tell you (I know because they later tell me in counseling sessions) “No, I should not be happy that he is in a better place – I should be sad that he is not here with me.”; “No I should not feel grateful that he is with God – when all I want is more time.”

People in grief also do not need to sit through others’ religious beliefs at this vulnerable time, when they are struggling to recall their own. The sender may feel quite sure that God has called the deceased home for reasons that only he understands, but the loved ones may not see it that way at all. Better to let them find their own spiritual way instead of prescribing yours.

I read every card. The only one that I could send was the simplest, a sage green background with the faint image of a feather. On the front, it says Wishing you comfort. Inside: Thinking of you at this sad time and wishing you comfort in the days ahead.

No platitudes, no religious presumptions, no pity. I’m sending it today with a simple note. It’s what I can do.


For more thoughts on grieving, visit my website on grief

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