A heartfelt note is perfect. Food is love, show up with a cake, a chicken (broiled or fried) or send a fruit basket. Sometimes a check is in order when you know for sure that the family is low on cash. Yvette and I have shown up with our cell phones, ready to make those calls no one wants to receive. Do something kind, do something sensitive. If you don't know what to say, let Hallmark say it for you. When we lost our cousin last year, I received my first sympathy card. I was touched because it showed recognition of mine and our family's loss. Yet, some family members didn't call our aunt because they didn't know what to say!
What to do doesn't seem to be the problem for most people. It's what to say that gets tricky and sometimes can seem insensitive. A friend or ours lost her one hundred year old mother. Well meaning callers seemed to write off the death. "One hundred, she lived a full life, it was time." Or if someone died after a long illness some will say, "At least he won't be suffering anymore. Just think, he's not in pain." Maybe it's best to leave it up to the one who's grieving to put their loss into their own perspective. And please, enough with, "I bet he's up in heaven having a ball with friends." That may be but here on earth there's a family grieving.
Don't play reporter when there's been a fatal accident. Yvette remembers a person grilling someone who'd just lost their loved one in an accident. "They wanted to know everything." If there is anytime for us to mind our business it's during times of mourning. We all want to know the facts but don't call up the wife, the husband or the parent. If you want to satisfy your curiosity, and that's understandable, call someone who's not so close.
Sometimes when people die suddenly we want to find a reason that is some way will explain their death and maybe make us feel a little better. When Tim Russert died everyone wanted to know if he knew his condition. They wanted to know if he had had an inkling or warning. If so, we could understand and accept his untimely death. That may leave us feeling better but what about his wife and son?
If you have bad news try not to leave it on an answer machine, nothing worse than bad news after the beep. Emails can be equally as devastating but there's probably no better way to reach a lot of people quickly. Yvette and I suggest phone calls, organize a posse of callers and tell them to keep phoning until a human answers the phone. No need to call in the middle of the night or dawn. This isn't about hot news off the press.
There's no norm to grieving of offering condolences. There are a few dos and don't but at the end of the day, like a friend always says, "Do what you do." That's what Dorothy Parker did.