What to Say to Someone Who Lost a Loved One

Debby Mayne

How to write a beautiful condolence card to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide

Unfortunately I also have personal experience with this most challenging task. When I was twenty years old my father, Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr., the strongest man I knew, died by suicide sometime in the evening of December 21, 1970— the Winter Solstice. Some think of that as the shortest day of the year. We believe that was the longest night for our father. He had purchased a .38 caliber pistol two days earlier from a gun shop in Chicago. We thought he was in Panama on business.

It was only after my 24 year old son, Jimmy Gauntt, was struck and killed by an automobile in August of 2008 walking home from a party—he was too intoxicated to drive—that I began to come to grips with my father’s suicide. It was my son’s death that made me finally confront my father’s demise—a death I had run from as far and fast as I possibly could for over 38 years.

I was stone-cold stopped in my tracks, spun around and confronted face to face with my dad who showed up to pull me back from the precipice of my grief. I cannot adequately express the enormity of this reconnection with my father. The story of this incredible visit from the other side is told in this ten minute film by Steve Date.

As I wrote in How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Card To Someone Who Has Lost A Child, we received hundreds, maybe a thousand, condolence cards after Jimmy’s death. A steady stream of family, our friends, friends of Jimmy, flower and food deliveries poured through our house in Solana Beach, California that first week. A thousand sorrowful souls attended his memorial service on the University of California campus in San Diego.

The aftermath of my father’s suicide could not have been more different. A few family members flew in from California. A handful of friends came by the house. About twenty-five folks attended his memorial service held at the Itasca Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve day. Maybe two pews full. There were no photos of my father, no casket. Reverend Tom Hinkin was the only one who spoke. The family went back to our house, we men huddled around a table in our kitchen and drank scotch. There was no wake, no celebration of life. My father’s death was not feted.

On Christmas day my mother handed me an envelope addressed to me. “This came in the mail yesterday .” The envelope was postmarked December 21 in Roselle, Illinois, where my dad’s office was located. I pulled out the letter. Three hundred-dollar bills fell from the missive written in my father’s hand. His customary steady cursive scrawled untidily across the paper. Two lines: Casey—I sold some of your Hecla Mining shares. Please buy something for your mother and Laura. Those were my father’s last words to us—to me. His suicide note. I gave the money to my mother and threw the note away.

Suicide makes strangers of neighbors and friends. Family, too. Suicide is crushing, unthinkable, unfathomable and frightening. What can you say? What can you do when your initial instinct is to just run? The question—implied and explicit—why? Why did this happen? Isn’t there something more that could have been done?

The fear of those around me—the sheer fact everyone was so immobilized by the shock of his suicide—compounded the fear and anger that welled up in me. I went back to finish my junior year at USC after the “holidays” and told only two fraternity brothers what really happened to my dad. To everyone else I lied “ He had a heart attack .”

All this is to emphasize the point that, when someone you know loses a loved one to suicide this will not only be the hardest condolence card you write—it will be the most important. In How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Card To Someone Who Has Lost A Child, I included several “Don’ts.” Let me add a few more:

Don’t run away. Suppress every instinct to the contrary and run to the side of your friend or loved one. Truly, one of the most important and helpful things you can do is show up with a card, other remembrance or, better yet, a personal visit and a hug.

Don’t treat this death differently. The fact is whether the person was struck by a car at age 24, succumbed from a long illness at the age of 90 (my dear mother) or died by suicide at 51, he or she is gone and begun the next leg of the journey. They have moved on. How you approach a death by suicide with your friend or loved one will play a role in how they move on with their life. If you feed the victim aura-either with the words you use or by saying nothing at all—this may stunt the healing process. Your friend or loved one is most certainly deeply feeling the pain and trauma as a victim from the suicide. Don’t compound that.

In How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Card To Someone Who Has Lost A Child I also included some examples of beautiful cards we received after we lost our Jimmy. The ingredients of a beautiful, meaningful, condolence card when the death is by suicide are the same and I will not repeat them here.

What to Say When Someone Loses a Loved One

The most important goal is to let the person who has lost a loved one know that you are there to support them and listen to them in the days ahead as they move through their grief. Grief does not end at the funeral. If you can, reassure them that you will be available to lend ongoing emotional and practical support as needed.

Many times there is an outpouring of support immediately after a death and then people don’t continue to be available for the person who is grieving. Stay in touch with the person who is grieving in person, by phone, through email, or cards. This lets them know they remain in your thoughts and you are available as promised. This can be an invaluable lifeline.

Saying the right thing to someone who loses a parent, friend or loved one can be challenging for people. The needs and the mood of a person grieving can fluctuate and what may be the right thing to say at one moment may not be as effective or comforting at another time. The last thing people want to do is make a grieving person feel worse. People go through many stages of grief and what feels comforting can change depending on their emotional status.

These statements share common qualities. They reflect compassion and empathy. They acknowledge that there has been a great loss and you cannot presume to know exactly how the bereaved feels. They are words of comfort focusing on the person suffering the loss.

These statements acknowledge the difficulty of coping with an enormous loss and tells the person grieving that whatever they are feeling is OK and that you are there for them and understand that learning to deal with loss is not easy.



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