by Elizabeth deGraw Renna

It is such a sad thing when someone we love dies. On January 9, 2013 at about 11:30 p.m., a much-loved in-law passed away peacefully. I have been a part of that experience this past week, of the unfolding moments that follow such an event, but this Blog is not the place for sharing private details of a close family matter.

There have been many moments to experience as a result of this passing. I discovered that the word “condolences” was slightly unfamiliar to one of my loved ones, the one who has experienced such a deep loss. Definitions of words help me to understand my experiences in new and sometimes richer ways; I know that might seem strange.

Condolence, noun

A sympathetic word, card, or message: an expression of sorrow and sympathy, usually to somebody who is grieving over a death.

Condole, verb

To express sympathy about somebody’s pain: to express sympathy to somebody who is experiencing grief, loss, or pain, especially over a death.

[Late 16th century. < ecclesiastical Latin condolere “grieve together” < dolere “suffer”]

I appreciate the Latin origin and its meaning of grieving together. Offering your condolences to someone who is grieving can become a joining with that person, for a moment or for longer. It can be a way of communicating your sympathy, but it can also be a way of sharing your own sadness.

It seems that there are more ways than ever before for caring folk to offer their condolences. Sympathy cards are a more conventional way to express one’s support. The local newspaper has an online obituary with an electronic “guest book” where people can leave their condolences. The funeral home has a similar website for the leaving of electronic messages. A true sign of our ever-expanding technological times.

“My condolences for your loss.” The word “condolences” allows people to express their sympathy for someone else’s loss in a very simple, sometimes vague, and less specific way. There’s nothing wrong with that; I’m not judging. Dealing with death brings up all kinds of issues for people and I’m sure that it is a very unique and individualized experience for each person.

Witnessing another person’s deep loss of a loved one due to death has an effect on every witness, on every person who enters that sphere of loss for a moment, for awhile, or forever. We have memories of our own losses. We search for the right words to say. Or we are not sure what to say. We want to be supportive but are sometimes not sure how to do that. We wonder how we will react and respond when someone close to us dies. And then we slip back into denial that we will ever have to experience that, at least for a little while. And sometimes we become aware of not taking life so much for granted, at least for the next few days.

 How wonderful it is when condolences are offered and include specific, thoughtfully chosen memories of the person who has died, whether this is shared verbally or in a note included in a sympathy card. Listen carefully to those shared memories; listen for the stories hidden in the grieving person’s words, or in the words of the one sharing in the grief. There is life and joy in those stories and that’s what we hold onto.

One night recently as I slept, the word “condolences” was threaded through my consciousness until finally I had a short dream about “condolences”, both the word and the concept. In my dream I was buying condolences. They were being sold in a form that looked like bed sheets, all packaged up in neat rectangles. There were different sizes available, that part was obvious in the dream. By extension, when I thought about the dream later and about the bed sheet metaphor, there would be many choices of condolences if they were indeed for sale in this way. There would be different colors, different patterns, different sizes, different types of fabric weaves. Bed sheets are for beds, places to rest your body, to recuperate if needed… an interesting dream, to be sure.

Condolences can be chosen carefully, to fit with the person who is receiving them and to feel comfortable to the giver. In whatever form they are given, however, they are welcome and appreciated.