Monday, August 23, 2010

Condolence Phrase Frequency

The most popular condolence phrases was:
I'm sorry for your loss, or
I'm sorry to hear about your father
This came from most everyone, but more from Israelis and the religious.

The next most popular condolences were the traditional Jewish ones:
May God comfort you (among the mourners of Jerusalem and Zion) / may you be comforted,
May his memory be a blessing, or
Blessed be the true judge
One non-Jewish friend offered the first one of these to me.

In third place was the phrase:
Please accept my condolences / sympathies / commiserations
Strangely, only Jews offered this version. The last one was offered by one weird friend.

The least popular was:
My thoughts / prayers are with you
I thought this was going to be in second place, but I was wrong. This phrase was offered only by Americans: non-religious Jews or other friends (the "prayers" variant by religious Christians).

Oddly, no one offered this (apparently deprecated) form of condolence:
Our hearts go out to you during your time of sorrow
Nor any other form of heart, e.g. "you are in our hearts". Hearts appear to be passe.


Dug said...

I suspect most forms of condolences tend to be cultural, both national and religious, so I would expect different condolences from Gentile Americans than Orthodox Jew Israelis.

The fact of the matter is that, at least in the US, we don't have the vaguest idea of what to say unless you are part of the same religious community. We spend most of our lives rushing to oblivion but are terrified of it at the same time. Like sex, we are both captivated and repelled by the concept of death. Many of us seem to be looking forward to dying, even before we reach a natural end-of-life, through the predominant religion of Christianity, but then we're terrified of even discussing the issues surrounding end of life, as evidenced by the hysteria during the health care "debate".

In the end, we all die. Pretending it won't happen, or that in the greater scheme of things living an extra few days or even years means nothing. In the end, it's how you lived your life and how many people are sorry you're gone compared with how many people are glad to see you in the ground. The longer I live, the more I'd like to have complete control over my own death, yet I live in the only state in the US that allows people to take their own lives legally and under very constrained conditions. I think that as the Boomers age, this will change, and I'm glad of it.

And what will trigger my decision to go? Dementia and/or an ability to use the toilet on my own. Not coincidentally, this is what my own mother is going through now.

Also, when I am facing a loss, I would like people to simply tell me what a good woman my mother was, if they knew her, or even that it must be a relief to know that she is no longer suffering the gross indignities of old age that she hated so much. Those are words I will find comfort in. YMMV, and perhaps that's why we have so much trouble finding the right words to say, especially with people we are not close to.

Yehuda said...

Dug, the stock phrases are actually pretty good.

The most common one - sorrow to hear of your loss - is the best. You're sorry for me, which establishes an emotional sympathy, and you acknowledge that - however I felt about the person - it is a loss.

The American one - thoughts are with you - seems rather detached and unspecific to me. You're thoughts can't really be with me much of the time, and you don't actually say what your thoughts are. While the intent is good, it is pretty vague.

The shiva rules are that you don't speak until spoken to, let the mourner guide the conversation, but don't talk about your own losses or situation, instead concentrating on memories of the deceased.

So ask about the deceased, or tell the mourner what you know about the deceased (if it's positive or neutral). Offer to do specific things, like clean, babysit, help organize, or cook.

I'm not partial to "I'm happy to hear that he is no longer suffering". Yes, because he is dead. Pffttt. "I'm happy to hear that your boss is no longer annoying you ... because you were fired."