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How to Handle In-Person Condolence Conversations

How to Handle In-Person Condolence Conversations
When someone offers their condolences in-person it can be comforting or uncomfortable. Here are ways to make condolence conversations easier to handle.

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Recently, we published a guide on handling all kinds of condolences that are delivered in different ways. Because in-person condolences can be the most difficult to handle, we’re expanding the discussion with more information on why it’s hard to have condolence conversations in-person and strategies that make it easier to respond. Continue reading to learn How to Handle In-Person Condolence Conversations.

Why In-Person Condolences Are Difficult to Deal With

Regardless of whether you choose cremation or burial, and even if there isn’t a public service or memorial, people are going to offer their condolences when they discover you’ve lost a loved one. When someone says, “I’m sorry for your loss,” is meant to be comforting, but it can end up feeling awkward and uncomfortable for a number of reasons: 

  • In-person condolences can catch you offguard. 
  • You don’t have time to think about a response.
  • It can stir up emotions you don’t necessarily want to show others in the moment. 
  • The other person may get emotional.
  • You may not know the person well or the relationship they had with your loved one. 
  • You may not know how to respond because you’re still processing everything.
  • People from different backgrounds and cultures express sympathy differently.

The first point is a big one. Unless you’re at a funeral service or memorial, in-person condolences may be unexpected. You’re simply ill-prepared to respond to something so emotionally-charged. Even people who are normally quick on their feet could be dealing with mental fog or still processing the loss and not know how to respond in the moment. 

The #1 thing to remember is that people’s hearts are in the right place. They may not say exactly the right thing and the conversation may be uncomfortable, but they are trying to be supportive the only way they know how. And offering condolences isn’t always easy. A lot of people want to express their sympathy but don’t know what to say. So, it can help to acknowledge that the conversation could be equally difficult for the other person.

Handling Condolence From Friends

Your network of friends can be an amazing support system when you’re dealing with a loss. Close friends will want to rally round you and be a shoulder for you to lean on. These are the people you can expect to receive heartfelt condolences from after a loss. 

Condolences from friends tend to be easier to respond to, especially if the person is someone that you confide in. You can react more naturally and know that you won’t be judged even if the response doesn’t come out exactly right.  

If your friend knew your loved one you can always respond by asking how they’re doing. You may be surprised to find that your loved one’s death has impacted the friend more than you realized. Bringing up a memory that you both shared with the deceased is another way to connect when a friend gives their condolences. 

When a friend offers their condolences they may also ask how they can help. This gives you the opportunity to respond by letting them know how they can be of assistance. People genuinely want to lighten your load so mentioning something you know they can handle is beneficial all around. 

Handling Condolence From Acquaintances 

Condolences from acquaintances can be awkward simply because you don’t know the person well. They usually hear about your loss indirectly from another family member, a mutual friend or someone in the neighborhood. 

The issue here is that you’re having a personal conversation with someone you don’t know personally that well. But don’t feel pressured to make a personal connection. You’re better off just using one of the generic responses below to keep the conversation short. 

Handling Condolence Conversations With Co-Workers

People at your workplace may also reach out to give their condolences or take a moment to tell you they’re sorry for your loss when you get back to work. If your company offers bereavement benefits you’ll have to correspond with at least one co-worker in HR when they bring up the topic. 

For people that tend to separate their work life from their personal life it can be extremely uncomfortable to address condolences from coworkers. Even though you’ve had time to process and adjust, the condolences can stir up emotions that have largely calmed down. Emotions that you may not want to express at work. You may also feel like you need to reassure coworkers that you can do your job. 

When these condolence conversations come up the best thing you can do is thank the person and let them know you appreciate all the support you received, which allowed you to focus on your family. You can always move the conversation forward from there by asking how things went while you were on bereavement leave to direct the discussion to a topic that’s more neutral. 

Generic Responses That Work When Someone Offers Their Condolences

Not knowing what to say when someone offers their condolences is common. Below are some generic responses that will work no matter who is offering you their condolences. They are go-to responses that can be used when you don’t know what else to say. 

“Thank you so much.”

“Thanks, your support means a lot.”

“Thank you, it’s been difficult but we’re getting through it.” 

“You’re so thoughtful, thank you.”

“Your thoughts would mean so much to my dad/mom/husband/wife.”

“Thank you for your kind words.”

“We’re so thankful for your thoughts and prayers.”

“Your condolences are very appreciated during this difficult time.”

It’s Okay to Break Away From the Conversation 

We’re taught in life that it’s bad manners to break away mid-conversation, but that rule doesn’t apply when you’re in mourning. After losing a loved one many people aren’t mentally and emotionally able to handle condolence conversations with just anyone. You can also become fatigued from handling numerous condolence conversations over a short period.

Simply asking, “can you excuse me for a moment” is enough to gracefully break away from the conversation. The other person should understand that the conversation may be difficult and you need some space. 

And again, giving condolences can be uncomfortable for the other person as well, so most people won’t try to keep the conversation going after you excuse yourself. They might even be relieved that you cut the conversation short rather than struggling through an awkward discussion. 

You can use these tips as conversation starters or conversation enders depending on the situation and how you’re feeling. No matter what, it’s important to do what feels right to you and know that a simple “thank you” is sufficient when someone offers their condolences.

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