Is there a right way to send sympathies to the bereaved? Experts weigh in

Tarra Quismundo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Apr 09 2021 11:09 AM | Updated as of Apr 09 2021 11:41 AM

Is there a right way to send sympathies to the bereaved? Experts weigh in 1
A flower store clerk refreshes funeral wreath at a shop in Manila, October 26, 2018. Mark Demayo, ABS-CBN News/File

MANILA— Over recent weeks, social media timelines have turned grim. Almost every day, a friend or colleague loses someone dear, or worse, succumb themselves to a fierce coronavirus surge that has gripped the country. 

Perhaps now more than ever, Filipinos are sending their sympathies to the bereaved. Since the pandemic began, 14,119 have died of COVID-19 as of Thursday, with the highest single-day tally of coronavirus deaths recorded on April 6 at 382. 

With gatherings for a wake prohibited and even visits to other households restricted under quarantine rules, messages of condolences are being sent remotely, and the late are now eulogized largely virtually— on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter timelines and comment threads. 

As the pandemic is changing the way people grieve, is there a proper way to commiserate? 

Experts who spoke to ABS-CBN News say it’s all about sincerity and respecting the space of someone who is grieving. 

“If you’re just being in that place of openness and compassion and sympathy and just listening, and just being open and loving, you cannot go wrong,” said Trissa Tismal-Capili, a best-selling personal growth author and transformational coach based in Los Angeles. 

“If we’re just really sending love to a family, they will feel it, if you’re sincere. It doesn’t matter what the words are, kung galing sa puso (as long as it’s from the heart),” she said. 

Each person grieves differently and have varying needs when going through the stages of bereavement, and so there is no hard-and-fast rule, she says. But one thing to keep in mind is that sending condolences should never feel obligatory and instead should come from a place of love. 

“There’s really no exact answer. Every family is different. To me it’s really about doing what is loving to you, and not doing it from a dysfunctional place, not a need, di lang nagpakita na umiyak ka, na kailangan may pakita ka, kailangan may gawin ka (not just to show that you cried, that you have to show something, that you have to do something),” said Capili, adding this comes from “the need to please, need to show.” 

“If there’s anything na ginagawa mo lang (that you are just doing) for show or because you feel obliged, then you shouldn’t,” she added.

For sociologist Bro. Clifford Sorita, sending sympathies is always tricky, as no one knows for sure what stage of grief the bereaved one is. 

“That is the problem. If we know in what stage of grief they are, we can easily appropriately give condolences… but the problem is we don’t know from the time we gave, di natin alam stage ng grief nila (We don’t know at what stage of grief they are in),” said Sorita in reference to the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) based on a model by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. 

He noted that people have different ways of dealing with loss and that different circumstances surrounding a loved one’s death also influence the manner of grief. 

For instance, someone who lost a loved one to a lingering illness may grieve much different from someone who suddenly lost a beloved to an accident, he said. 

“First and foremost, we want to give a sense of moral support to that person. But sometimes our actions on that level might add more problem kasi nga hindi tayo aware sa pinagdaraanan niya (because we are not aware of what the person is going through),” said Sorita. 

He said people should tread carefully around two major things: timing and choice of words. 

“Ang pagbibigay natin ng ating sympathies has to be timed well kung saan ‘yung tao is in a stage in which the person is open to receive our sympathies and condolences. Worst case matagal na nangyari… Tingnan mo ‘yung timeline bago ka magbitiw ng sympathies para alam mo kung anong klaseng words of encouragement ang ibibigay mo,” he said. 

(Giving our sympathies has to be timed well in such a way that the person is in a stage of being open to receive our sympathies and condolences. The worst case is the loss happened a long time ago… Check the timeline first before you send sympathies so you’d know what words of encouragement you can send.) 

For Sorita, words matter a lot. And one line to avoid at all costs: “Alam ko ang pinagdadaanan mo (I know what you are going through).” 

“Hindi ‘yun ang mga (those are not the) appropriate words eh. You will never know the person’s sense of grief. We have to be careful because we should never position ourselves that we know,” he said. 

Instead, “offer yourself as an avenue for them to ventilate their sense of grief,” he said. 

“The right words will always be words that you’re just there, you offer yourself to the person if the person needs you,” he said. 

Capili had similar advice. 

“What you can do is to be aware and be mindful, offer that space. “Hey if you want to talk to somebody, gusto mo maglabas ng (if you want to release your) pain mo, I’m just here. Offer but don’t push. And be sensitive to the person,” Capili said. 

Sorita, meanwhile, said it would also help to understand a family’s “subculture” in dealing with bereavement, citing how Filipinos observe different rites when grieving. 

He admitted, though, a lot of changes in the grieving process and how people cope with loss amid a pandemic are “uncharted territory.” 

For example, in areas where wakes are allowed, is it OK to take photos if one is visiting to pay respects? 

“Sa totoo lang pinagiisipan ko rin ‘yan. ‘Yung photos of you visiting, you showing yourself near the casket, sa totoo lang talaga, this is a new, uncharted territory… Binabalanse dito number 1, will the family be open?” Sorita said. 

(The truth is I am also thinking about that. Photos of you visiting, showing yourself near the casket, this is a new, uncharted territory. What we should balance there is number 1, will the family be open?)

“Siguro you can do it naman in good taste. You can inform other people, you can show them you were there. Pero how do you define good taste? To be safe, check with the family,” he said. 

(Perhaps you can do it in good taste. You can inform other people, you can show them you were there. But how do you define good taste? To be safe, check with the family.) 

When it comes to grief and social media, “always respect the person’s space,” Sorita said. 

“Don’t invade it. Mas makakasama ka pa sa kanya kesa sa makabuti sa kanya (We might just make it worse),” he added. 

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