What is good etiquette for expressing my condolences?
December 7, 2004 5:14 PM   Subscribe

My professor's father just died. Normally I wouldn’t care, but I really like this prof and it’s a very small class where everyone knows each other. I would like to offer some condolence, especially since this happened right before the holidays, even if it is just a short email message. Would this be appropriate? What should I say / not say?
posted by fourstar to Human Relations (37 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think it would be inappropriate. I know I'd do it if it happened to some of the professors I know on a more personal basis, and I'm sure he'd appreciate it. Say what you'd say to anyone in the same situation; i.e.,

"Professor ______, I was very sorry to learn about your loss. You and your family will be in my thoughts."

Or some variation thereof.
posted by ludwig_van at 5:21 PM on December 7, 2004

An email or card (i'd send an email): "I'm so sorry to hear of your loss. Please let me know if there's anything i can do for you or your family. "

(and you can make a donation if you want and say "A donation has been made to BlaBlaBla in his name"-- if you know what he or the father is into, or what he died from.)

or what ludwig said.
posted by amberglow at 5:22 PM on December 7, 2004

And I'd really recommend a short, handwritten note, on decent stationery, over an e-mail. An e-mail isn't necessarily rude, but if the point is making it clear that you care, the gesture of picking a nice note, and then handwriting it, is as meaningful as anything you actually write. (Especially nowadays.)
posted by LairBob at 5:23 PM on December 7, 2004

[The late mother of i_am_joe's_spleen dictated this via ouija board]

You send him a card. Slip it under the office door or drop it off in his mailbox if you're worried about delays in the post. Email is not suitable for condolences.

All you have to say is:

Dear Professor X

I was very sorry to hear of your father's death. My deepest sympathies to you and your family.

Yours sincerely,


If you feel up to embroidering that, then cool, but it's the fact that you gave enough of a shit to get in touch that counts, not what you have to say.

[Message ends]
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:24 PM on December 7, 2004 [1 favorite]

PS: Mum would never have said "gave enough of a shit". Must be a transcription error.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:25 PM on December 7, 2004

Dear professor, I am very sorry about your loss.

PS. Would like an A, thanks.
posted by xmutex at 5:27 PM on December 7, 2004

Geez, what an asshole you are, xmutex.
posted by interrobang at 5:38 PM on December 7, 2004

i_am_joe's_spleen and LairBob have it right. A note or card are much nicer than an email in this sort of situation. Since you don't really know him well I would probably go with a card. i_am_joe's_spleen's note is perfect. Oh, and what interrobang said.
posted by caddis at 5:57 PM on December 7, 2004

It is always a good idea to add a line like, "please do not feel the need to respond to this card"--less of a problem if you have day-to-day contact with the person--because it alleviates an anxiety that the mourner really does not need.
posted by armchairsocialist at 6:00 PM on December 7, 2004

not an email, please. a note for the reasons already mentioned. leaving it at the office or in intercampus mail is perfectly okay, if you don't have access to the professor's home address. i disagree with what armchairsocialist said, but only because i think it would suddenly make a mourner believe he was supposed to write back, which he's not. it's not customary to respond to notes of condolence, just like it's not customary to send thank you notes to people who send flowers to the memorial.

i'd suggest a blank card rather than "sympathy" card but would recommend plain stationary paper or a plain stationery card over either.

and what interrobang said
posted by crush-onastick at 6:05 PM on December 7, 2004

I'm so sorry to hear of your loss.

I feel like we've talked about it before, but when I was going through a similar situation, I HATED EVERYONE WHO TROTTED OUT THIS AND OTHER STUPID CLICHÉS. So I say now what I wanted to say then: if you can't say it without using a cliché, it doesn't sound sincere. Cookie cutter bullshit baloney "sorry for your loss" is lame, lame, lame. You might as well say, "I'm a kiss-ass suckup who doesn't know how to feel real emotion but was just barely smart enough to know not to buy a pre-printed card to give you instead of this weak-ass note."

It's like all writing: Either write it with emotion or don't say anything. You don't have to do ANYTHING. Only speak up if you feel an uncontrollable urge to, and then, lo and behold, what to say is no longer a problem.
posted by Mo Nickels at 6:10 PM on December 7, 2004

I disagree. Rejecting other people's sympathy because it's not originally phrased seems pretty churlish to me.

Often the reason people resort to cliches is not that they don't feel anything, but that they choke when they try to express what they feel. I think they can be forgiven for choking.

Up to you, fourstar, whether you think your teacher is like me or Mo Nickels.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 6:23 PM on December 7, 2004 [1 favorite]

Well, not to put to fine a point on it, Mo Nickels, but exactly what do you think is appropriate? Frankly, I'm not clear why "sorry for your loss" is a false sentiment, merely because it's become a common way of saying it. When each of my grandparents died, it was a loss -- and so when people said "sorry about your loss" to me, it resonated as a perfectly legitimate way for them to express their sympathies. I didn't hate anyone for it (and yes, "churlish" would be my characterizing of that response, too) -- I appreciated that they were expressing their thoughts when sometimes people really don't know what the hell else to say.

"I'm filled with existential dread at the fact that your gramdmother withered so horribly with Alzheimer's that she could no longer recognize her own child, and am sorry for the howling abyss of grief you're going through, compounded by your impending divorce" may have been more factually honest in my case a few years ago, but I don't think you can truly fault anyone for the fact that they don't exactly make greeting cards with that sentiment.
posted by scody at 6:29 PM on December 7, 2004 [1 favorite]

Before jumping all over xmutex consider that the original poster said, "My professor's father just died. Normally I wouldn’t care,..."

So, um, what an asshole you are fourstar.
posted by geekyguy at 6:46 PM on December 7, 2004

No need for a mourner to write back, and as people mentioned, do a card over an email. Professors are human too and I can't see any reason why you wouldn't reach out at this time. Its a symbol, it really doesn't matter what you say or how you word it, just do it.
Also, by letting him know you know of his loss, it implicitly allows for any distraction, delays, late assignment returns, etc he may experience in the next few weeks - that can be a load off his mind as well.
posted by Rumple at 6:51 PM on December 7, 2004

My situation wasn't quite the same, but I am a professor and will comment anyway. I didn't lose a parent, but nearly lost my fiancee during a six week hospital stay.

Two issues:
1) Should you comment? Yes. Exactly what Rumple said.

2) What should you say? That's much harder. Most of the folks who said anything to me said some variant of "I'll pray for you." At the beginning, that triggered my instinctive anti-religious "quit stuffing your ideology down my throat!" reflex. As things worsened, I (slowly, finally) learned it was the sentiment that counted. The idea that someone was wishing us positive thoughts was much more important than the actual words used.

Also, I think email is fine. If it matters, I am of a younger generation, and had established a precedent of communication via email.

As far as what not to say: My .sig used to be a quote from Bill Nye, the Science Guy: "Sometimes things die, but that's OK - it's science!" After accidently sending the quote on an email to my mother-in-law with condolences on her mother's death, that .sig was removed. Keep it simple.
posted by arabelladragon at 7:02 PM on December 7, 2004

I am a professor and my father died last year. I didn't receive any email/cards/notes from students, but I did receive cards and a few notes from colleagues, friends and relatives of s.o. I would definitely go with something like what i_am_joe's_spleen said. Personally, I'm not big on "your loss." I'm not into euphemisms. If you don't want to say "death" just say "I was sorry to hear about your father."
posted by noether at 7:17 PM on December 7, 2004

Before jumping all over xmutex consider that the original poster said, "My professor's father just died. Normally I wouldn’t care,..."

So, um, what an asshole you are fourstar.

Some people might suggest that taking someone else's words out of context marks one as an asshole. Let's restore the context, shall we?

My professor's father just died. Normally I wouldn’t care, but I really like this prof and it’s a very small class where everyone knows each other.

Which makes it pretty clear to me that fourstar's meaning is along the lines of, "If he were a professor in a lecture class with 400 students, where I had no personal contact with the professor, I wouldn't care," which seems reasonable and not at all assholish to me.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 7:18 PM on December 7, 2004

Mo Nickels, a few years ago I learned that people express their grief (or other sentiments in other situations) in the only way that they can.

When I lost my Dad several years ago, some people said the perfect words to me, and others blubbered whatever they could

didn't matter - what meant to me was the sentiment behind the words (perfect or blubbered) not the perfect grammatical or sentimental phrasing.
posted by seawallrunner at 7:26 PM on December 7, 2004

Can I offer a differnt approach? I lost my Mom a couple years ago, suddenly in a traffic accident. What I appreciated most was the kind words that people said to me directly, even if they are basically the same words as in the note.

"I was really sorry to hear that your Mom passed away. But you have a lot of good memories to treasure when the shock and sadness fades away."

I realize it's holiday season, but even if it had to be a few weeks late I would prefer face-to-face condolences.
posted by planetkyoto at 7:34 PM on December 7, 2004

but when I was going through a similar situation, I HATED EVERYONE WHO TROTTED OUT THIS AND OTHER STUPID CLICHÉS.

I'll have to disagree here, too. When I was going through chemotherapy a few years ago, I sincerely appreciated the sentiments of others no matter how poorly or irrationally they were expressed. I'm not religious but I understood what people were getting at when they said they were praying for me, and it seemed like an extraordinarily human thing - everyone wants you to be okay, but no one can really do anything. There's a kind of impotence inherently involved, which is probably what was really getting you angry, rather than the lack of originality itself.

The thing about cliches is that they stem from something universal - they become cliches only because everyone 'gets' them. Anyway, when you need support, originality is not the highest priority. The various cards or calls can sort of blend together into a chorus of human connection. This is true of congrats, too - the baby thread for matt has plenty of generic comments, but altogether it's kinda touching - it becomes a community response, not an individual exchange - which is appropriate, because it is qua human beings that we have these responses (to give condolences and congratulations), rather than qua individuals.
posted by mdn at 7:41 PM on December 7, 2004 [2 favorites]

Sorry, I've had 15 years to think about this one. I've never been convinced that people meant it when they used the clichés. It still burns me when I think of the people who used those lines and then, years later, when I still needed people talk to, were the very sorts of people who indicated that I was wrong for still being off-kilter about the death.

It's clearly not an absolute case, but in my experience, when people use clichés, it represents merely a discharge of responsibility and obligation and not a failure to communicate their own inner emotions. I think those kinds of clichés are thoughtless, worthless acts better left unsaid.

Regarding the baby threads and others: let me know when you see me contribute in those threads. Because you almost never will. I express my emotions as often as possible in a personal, direct manner and not part of a me-too chorus. I want to avoid the appearance of having done something only out of obligation. That requires just a little extra effort.

When a colleague's mother suddenly died last January, this is what I wrote to her:

"I'm so sorry to hear about your mom. I don't know what you're feeling right now, exactly, but enough to know how tough it can be. If you want a strange ear to spill into, give me a ring at the office and let it rip."

Weeks later she did respond: she read my message and saved it for when she needed it. What would she have done with "Sorry for your loss"?
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:09 PM on December 7, 2004

Ok, DevilsAdvocate, tell me that you need a qualifier to care about the loss of someone's father regardless of the casual level of your relationship with them.
posted by geekyguy at 8:32 PM on December 7, 2004


I hear that. I feel like "I'm sorry for your loss" on a card is the equivalent of "bummer."

tell me that you need a qualifier to care about the loss of someone's father regardless of the casual level of your relationship with them.

I guess I do. I mean, if I learned that the father of someone I barely knew died, I think my thought process would be something along the lines of "that's too bad", and then I'd never think of it again. I don't know if that means I don't care, or if the amount of caring I do is just incredibly miniscule.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 8:55 PM on December 7, 2004

I think that Mo Nickels has a point about clichéd sentiment that feels like it is just being trotted out. But the practicalities suggest that it is really tough to avoid (especially if you are trying to avoid words like "death" which some people seem to find too stark for such situations) unless you are a good writer. Which is why a brief note rather than a pre-printed card is always better as, even if it is close to impossible to completely avoid cliché unless you knew both the person you are writing to and the deceased well, the sentiment may be unoriginal but at least it's you not Hallmark.

Also writing does not preclude mentioning it next time you meet, again briefly and tactfully initially. If the person wants to talk about it they can, if not they can make the briefest acknowledgment and move on. Take your cue from them.

As to the offer of an "ear to spill into," it's not an offer that most students would feel comfortable making to most professors, but YMMV.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:09 PM on December 7, 2004

I think the idea about "I'm sorry for your loss" is that it's a way of saying, hey, I'm here for you, and I feel really bad about what you're going through, but I don't pretend to know what that's like. I think it's enough to let someone know that you're thinking about them without trying to intrude on their grief.

Mo Nickels - slagging people because they're not saying something about death that's never been said before is just petulant.

It sucks that your mom died, but not everyone is going through the anguish that you went through, so how about you get a little perspective and maybe a little bit of counseling. It sounds like you could use someone who has to sit and listen to you.
posted by bshort at 9:10 PM on December 7, 2004 [1 favorite]

I express my emotions as often as possible in a personal, direct manner and not part of a me-too chorus. I want to avoid the appearance of having done something only out of obligation.

why is being part of a "me-too chorus" equivalent to doing something out of obligation? Congratulations and condolences aren't about you - they're about the person undergoing the experience. Yes, personal thoughts are appropriate when it's someone you have a closer relationship to - but when you're responding just as another human being, the point isn't to distinguish yourself and your response to the news. It is simply to add support or love to the environment...

It's possible that the feeling is quite different when you're in danger yourself and when you're mourning, though. Facing a frightening possibility, I was thankful for all good wishes. Perhaps if I had been dealing with an already actualized loss, I would have been more in search of real empathy and understanding, and less comforted by generic expressions of love. Still, in the end I think it's a bit unfair to get so bothered by people's attempts at expressing concern. Your example of a more personal note doesn't seem to me all that less generic, except for the somewhat clumsy language of "strange ear to spill into" and "let it rip". Why do you think that's so much better than - "I'm truly sorry to hear about your father; please know that my thoughts are with you, and if there's anything you need, don't hesitate to call,"? The intent is the same. If it's a close friend, personal memories might be nice, or really, calling or stopping by in person - but if it's a colleague, teacher, acquaintance, etc, then a simple expression of support or concern seems appropriate.
posted by mdn at 9:13 PM on December 7, 2004

I was thankful for all good wishes

I think this is the point. The idea is to express your sympathy and solidarity without drawing too much attention to yourself.

When my brother was killed lots of people sent me cards (far more than when my father died -- it must have been something about the untimely death that moved them). Many of them were simple and heartwarming, most of them clichéd, and some of them were cards which said something about my brother being happy now he was with the bebby jebus. I didn't read the last category too closely, except for the signature, and didn't find the sentiments expressed helpful but I still appreciated them as they represented a sincere effort on the part of the senders; the fact that they had bothered mattered even if the precise content didn't.
posted by Quinbus Flestrin at 9:27 PM on December 7, 2004

Thank you for everyone who commented constructively in the thread. I was in this situation last year, and did not know what to do. I wanted to express my sympathies, but I simply did not have the words - I did not know the professor well enough to say somehing personal, but liked and respected him, and wished to express sympathies so that he knew that people did care (even if they were just the students in his seminar). But reading this, I think it doesn't matter what you say, cliche or not, but that you thought to say it.
posted by jb at 11:36 PM on December 7, 2004

What do the cliche complainers actually want instead, 'lovely weather for the time of year'? I say joe's spleen had this spot on.
posted by biffa at 2:17 AM on December 8, 2004

Dear Mo Nickels,

Please remember that not everyone is a poet and writer. Your oh-so-facile assumption that a sincere desire to express sympathy will necessarilyresult in a clear and uncomplicated knowledge of what you would like to say is just wrong. I am in fact a pretty solid general-purpose writer, but I am often at a loss when I want to communicate a sincere and uncomfortable emotion to someone else. I often resort to quoting Whitman or Doty, or retreat to the cliches or, perhaps even worse, fall into silence because I can't figure out how to say what I would like to say without sounding insincere. What I finally realized is that the cliche is often a vehicle for the deepest sincerity. Retreating to the comfortable traditions and mores of one's society is a natural reaction in times of emotional stress. A shoulder to cry on is amongst the most cliche of offers of sympathy, as well amongst the best. I'm not saying that the cliches don't, at times, conceal insincerity. But neither do they necessitate its existence.

fourstar - the suggestions in this thread are great. I'm sure your professor will appreciate it.

geeky - he cares because he knows his professor. My grandfather died this summer, are you an asshole because you don't care? Of course not. You didn't know him and you don't know me.

arabella - fancy seeing you here.
posted by kavasa at 4:28 AM on December 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

as someone who has been an academic, and who lives with someone who is still an academic, i say - do it however you want (email or paper, short or long). whatever you do, it will be appreciated. by far and away it's the thought that counts and any feedback from students is precious/important (really - we think of you much more than you ever realise, especially in small classes).

so just go for it. and thanks. students like you make it a much nicer job,
posted by andrew cooke at 5:32 AM on December 8, 2004

Would this be appropriate?

Anything reasonable. Don't worry about it.

Look, you're an undergrad in this guy's class. He doesn't expect you to be a world-class poet or wordsmith. If you write or say to him anything better than "Dude, I heard about yer pop. Bummer." he'll take it in the spirit in which it was given (or he's an asshole, which isn't your problem or fault).

What should I say / not say?

Don't inquire as to the mode of his death.

Don't offer to be an ear to spill into, or to provide any other service. It would not be appropriate for the prof to wander into your dorm room at 2AM to spill his guts, or for you to go over to his place and make his family dinner. Likewise, don't make a donation in his or his father's name.

ludwig_van has it right.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:53 AM on December 8, 2004

Clichéd words are the problem here, not shared sentiment. I'm not demanding original emotion: I'm hoping for true expression.

I guess a cynic like me is never a good judge of the content of someone's heart.
posted by Mo Nickels at 7:41 AM on December 8, 2004

Mo, it seems that you are talking about a situation in which a close friend's parent died, which is not the case here. ludwig_van has answered fourstar's question perfectly.

It's ungracious to reject any sincere offering of sympathy, no matter how bland the cliches may be. People just want to show that they care about you.

I can understand being disappointed if a close friend fails to be more eloquent than a stranger, but then, isn't that what hugs are for?
posted by naomi at 8:53 AM on December 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

I would also like to say that I don't believe there's a necessary correlation between people who express their sympathy in an "original" way and people who will necessarily "be there" for you. In the past several years, I've been through deaths in the family, a divorce, and cancer treatment and guess what, Mo? Sometimes, the people who really did help me out in really substantive were the ones who also happened to use "sorry for your loss" or told me they were praying for me or whatever. Likewise, there were some people who wrote truly eloquent, heartfelt things -- and yet never called, never visited, and/or were not responsive when I wanted to talk about the situation.

I can think of a small handful people where the two factors overlapped -- namely, that they were eloquent writers AND were there to help me. And yet, many more people than that were actually supportive. So good writing doesn't always indicate someone who will be a good friend.
posted by scody at 10:19 AM on December 8, 2004 [1 favorite]

read: "really did help me out in really substantive ways."
posted by scody at 10:36 AM on December 8, 2004

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