Monday, August 11, 2008

Etiquette of contacting someone after loss

In this week's edition of their relatively new etiquette column, written by Philip Galanes, The New York Times addresses how to contact someone who has lost a son to suicide. Here's the full exchange:

"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.

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