"Sympathy by E-Mail
I recently learned that a former colleague, with whom I was friendly but haven’t seen in many years, lost her son to suicide. The death was almost a year ago, but it just came to my attention. I want to send my condolences. I was going to send her an e-mail message, but I wonder if this sort of thing should be addressed only with a phone call or a handwritten note.
It’s great that you’re getting in touch with your friend. She needs all the support she can get — maybe even more so now than in the immediate aftermath of her son’s death, when people tend to cluster around.
I don’t think it makes much difference how you contact her. It really is the thought that counts. Still, let me offer a suggestion: A phone call — coming out of the blue, on a painful subject — forces your friend to respond whether she wants to or not. Written communication gives her more control: she can respond when she’s ready. It also creates a memento of your kindness that she can return to later.
Some people make a fuss about the superiority of handwritten notes in instances like these. They may have a point, but I don’t believe it’s a material one. This much is certain: your friend needs your support. So don’t get bogged down in mechanics."
I like this answer for two reasons:
1) I completely agree that you should get in touch when someone you know suffers a loss. It often feels awkward, and we rarely know the right thing to say, but I just think it has to be done.
2) I like the idea of e-mail instead of a phone call because the person is not obligated to respond or engage. It gives the person in grief the freedom to react however they feel comfortable to react. E-mail may not feel as personal, but the medium gives the receiver autonomy and control ... and that can be nice when you're grieving and forced into a lot of difficult, emotionally charged encounters like visitations, funerals, family dinners, etc.