> Sford wiki > Sford sympathy

If somebody you know has had a tragedy, you may want to express your sympathy. This page is written assuming that somebody has died, but it can be adapted with some common sense for other types of tragedy as well.

Sometimes, friends of mine tell me that they don't know what to say. The good news is that, once you understand a few things, it really is not that hard. It depends a little on how close the bereaved is to you.

Bereaved Acquaintance

Usually this involves signing a card, and perhaps offering to contribute towards flowers/charity. So what do you write? Here are guidelines:

Bereaved Friend

You'll want to do more than just sign a card. A personal note is a good idea. Hand-written on real paper is best. But a note should be longer than "sorry for your loss". What do you say?

The "DON'T"s listed above still apply.

If you have a direct connection with the person who died, express your own feelings of grief over the loss. You can even tell a short story about a positive experience you had with the deceased.

If you feel able, you should offer to help the bereaved out. But it is not good enough to simply say, "if there is anything I can do, anything at all, please call me." They will thank you for your thoughtfulness, and then they won't call. Instead, you should make some specific offers. Some examples:

"I would like to help out...

The key is to not make a vague offer, make specific ones. If they say no to a few different offers, they may be feeling overwhelmed; you can say, "I really want to help. Is there something else I could do? Maybe I should ask again in a few days?"


As a Jew, people have sometimes asked me questions about the tradition of "Shiva". Here's short fact list.

  1. Non-Jews are welcome, and even encouraged for friends (acquaintances may consider it optional).
  2. This would be a good time to bring the gift of food. But keep in mind that they may not be using it right away, so make sure it is not too perishable.
  3. It is possible that there will be a box of kippahs (a.k.a. yarmulkes), the little round hats or skull caps. If so, it is a show of respect to wear one while in the house. It is not a religious statement (i.e. you won't be seen as "pretending" to be Jewish if you wear one).
  4. Although more rare, you might also see a rack of long white cloth scarf-like things with string fringes along the bottom - tallits. These are religious objects and should not be disturbed by non-Jews.
  5. There might also be a religious service, sometimes called a Minyan. If you are not Jewish, you should not attempt to actively participate in this service. You may stand respectfully in the background, or you may even move to a different room and converse quietly.

After the funeral

Remember that a week after the tragedy, most other people have forgotten all about it. Set yourself a reminder to call one week, two weeks, three weeks later. Their need for you to "help" will reduce over time, but their need to talk will stay strong for longer.

Remember that there is a HUGE difference between losing an uncle, aunt, grandparent, or even parent, verses losing a spouse. When somebody loses a spouse, they have lost a critical source of adult contact. Loneliness can be far longer-lasting than simple grief. So invite them for coffee, or a nice walk, or a shopping trip. That said, don't try to be a match-maker, at least not until the person brings up the subject of being open to the idea.

Finally, as time goes on, you don't need to just be an intent listener, you can be more of an active participant in conversation. They will be trying to make actual sense out of things, and a real exchange of thoughts and experience can be helpful.


The gift of food is good, especially if you can personally deliver it. It is especially welcome if out-of-town guests are coming in.

Offering flowers is fine, but these days most people I know prefer you make a donation to a charity. If your've offered flowers and the bereaved says no, ask them if there is charity that is meaningful to them or the deceased. Tell the charity the name and address of the bereaved so that they can send an acknowledgement. (If the charity is a non-profit, you can also request a receipt for your own taxes. Don't worry, it doesn't "cheapen" the donation if you take the deduction.)

As for more-durable gifts, I'm not a fan of the idea. I can see it for a very young child, perhaps, but I've seen jewelry, picture frames, and little tchotchkies advertised as sympathy gifts, and they seem hollow to me. The gift of your time and attention does much more good.

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