When you work for a cause, especially one you feel strongly about, it’s hard to hide your passion. It comes through in everything you do.
But sometimes your supporters will need you to switch gears a bit, to turn from passion to compassion. You may have experienced this already, but if not, at some point in your career it’s likely you will be working with a supporter who has just lost a loved one.
It’s never easy to know what to do or say when someone’s grieving. Even if you’ve known the donor for years, you may find yourself at a loss for words and fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing.
For times like those, I’d like to share a few helpful resources.
Finding the Right Words
Let’s start with something small but important: a condolences card.
It may just be me, but I feel that a handwritten card is always the way to go. Whether you’re delivering it in person or through the mail, a handwritten note shares a warmth you won’t get with a pre-printed card.
To my great surprise, Hallmark Cards, universally known for its prowess in perfect phrasing, provides a helpful resource for writing condolences cards.
You’ll find dozens of short, well-crafted messages to inspire your note. Hallmark also offers helpful tips. For example, what to include in your note when you knew the person who passed away but not the surviving family members.
Checking Your First Instinct
My initial impulse is almost always to ask if there’s anything I can do. As well-intentioned as that may sound, it’s not always the best.
Harvard Business Review offers illuminating advice on how the desire to “do” something can cause the bereaved to focus on you. The article thoughtfully explains why we should:
- Avoid rushing to compare experiences
- Read the person to figure out the right time
- Stop tracking their grieving progress
The article advises us to focus on “being” instead of “doing.” That is, be there, be a good listener, show empathy, share good memories—and let them, at their own pace, talk about how they feel.
Feeling Confident in Your Approach
One of the most comprehensive resources I’ve found on this topic is Amy Florian’s book No Longer Awkward: Communicating with Clients Through the Toughest Times of Life.
Amy wrote her book for financial advisors who frequently find themselves helping clients through tough times. The context, I think, is very similar to what a professional fundraiser experiences in working with supporters.
This text covers everything from the larger issues of how men and women deal with grief differently, down to whether to send flowers and what to say at services. It’s comprehensive.
A Final Note
Understand that everyone deals with grief differently. Some supporters will find comfort in talking; others will prefer privacy.
Listen first and respond sensitively in situations where your supporter is grieving and let them guide you.
A sympathetic ear is often all they’re hoping for.
One thought on “How to Share Comfort and Condolences with Someone Who’s Grieving”
Nathan, Thanks for this thoughtful article and helpful suggestions. For many years I struggled like most do with “what to say” when confronted with these situations. Then the roles reversed when my 18 son died unexpectedly some years back. You are spot on with your comment that listening is far more valuable than speaking – I heard many say to me, “there are no words except to simply say I am sorry” – and that simple message is probably the best any of us can say. Be available to listen if they want to talk – amazing how often grieving people feel isolated because no one has the courage to listen . . .