Friday, 02 October 2015

The Lady Guide to Modern Manners: 2 October

Thomas Blaikie offers advice on the delicate matter of offering condolences to a friend who has lost a loved one

Written by Thomas Blaikie
Dear Thomas,
I am seeking your guidance on a delicate matter: how to offer condolences to an acquaintance who has lost a loved one. In June my Irish mother, aged 90, slipped away after a life well lived. At her funeral I was touched by the Irish tradition of offering mass cards to the family. This meant people had been kind enough to pay a cleric to sign a sympathy card indicating that a mass would be offered for her soul.

The English are less comfortable with death and offering sympathy. Some people email the bereaved, a practice I feel lacks intimacy. But worse: I discovered that one individual forwarded a Mother’s Day card to a bereaved daughter with the jolly sentiments scored out and replaced with words of sympathy. Imagine!

What is the appropriate form for offering condolences to non-familial mourners?
John McEntee, London

Dear John,
I can hardly believe the story of the Mother’s Day card hastily and inadequately adapted for condolences, but it must be true.

It is interesting that you mention the Irish Roman Catholic tradition of mass cards and point out that we lack a set way of doing things in this country. Let’s deal first of all with the form: 10 years ago it would have been unthinkable to do anything other than send a letter or card of condolence through the post. Sending an email is definitely out and texting is just plain horrible.

But now the bereaved frequently announce the death of a close relative by electronic means – so how are we supposed to respond?

Recently a friend put it on Facebook that her mother had died. I balked at the idea of adding to the trail of sympathetic ‘comments’, all on view to this person’s many Facebook ‘friends’. The awful thing is that, not knowing her address, after some time, I’ve done nothing. So perhaps it would have been better to pitch in on Facebook. But wherever possible it is always better to write a letter or send a card.

The second problem is: what to say? Well, something. Not just ‘Deepest sympathy’. Any memory of the deceased person, a sense of what they were like or something uplifting is to be preferred to despairing missives. If you didn’t know the person, don’t be afraid to fall back on what might seem like clichés. The purpose is to convey to the bereaved that you’re thinking of them. Five or six sentences, provided not thunderously tactless (‘You’ll get over it soon’ or ‘You can always get another husband/wife’), will not fail to do that.

Please send your questions to or write to him at The Lady, 39-40 Bedford Street, London WC2E 9ER

What to Do About...Litter

On a visit to my mother in the West Country, I was interested in an item on the local TV news about litter in Torquay. The council there has just brought in a team of litter and dog-poo ‘police’ who will patrol the streets of Torbay, issuing fines to offenders. This is a pilot scheme to run for 12 months but already they’ve nabbed quite a few people and there has been immense popular support.

Fair to say, as I understand it, dropping litter has always been an offence liable to incur a fine. But what a brainwave to finally enforce the law!

All my life people have been railing against litter. Remember the Keep Britain Tidy slogan? But nothing makes any difference. In fact, in our modern throwaway Primark society, people abandon entire outfits by the wayside, as my mother, aged 91, finds as she clears up litter at the beauty spot where she resides (and where is her MBE?). Litter, like graffiti, if not nipped in the bud grows exponentially. One chewing-gum paper on the grass makes it all right for everyone else to drop whatever they choose. We must keep track of developments in Torbay. I have high hopes.

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