How to express condolences with estranged neighbor?
September 12, 2009 2:26 PM   Subscribe

Our somewhat estranged neighbors just lost their 19 y/o son in a tragic accident. How do we communicate our sympathies?

We had a small disagreement with them when we first moved here and because of that bad impression we've never really developed a relationship with them. We're civil, but there's tension. I'm going out of my mind trying to think of an appropriate response to their inconceivable loss. They have tons of support from family and friends. They don't need ours...but I want to communicate our condolences in an appropriate manner.
posted by keith0718 to Human Relations (28 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can you leave a card in their mailbox? Maybe if you see them out in the neighborhood, pass your condolences on in person.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 2:27 PM on September 12, 2009

Maybe if you see them out in the neighborhood, pass your condolences on in person.

I'd avoid this. Considering the roller coaster they're on, you don't want to put them on the spot re: having to react to your gesture. A card with a handwritten note, a delivery of food, an offer to help however you can, anything that will blend in with the chorus of everyone else's efforts will be the biggest help.
posted by hermitosis at 2:32 PM on September 12, 2009

There's good reason why this is such a customary thing to do. When grieving it is normal to simply forget to eat (most people can barely taste food anyway; or if they can taste it, their brains cannot register the pleasure associated with food that they'd normally feel when not grieving).

I'd send over a cake, lasagna, banana bread, whatever with a hand-written or signed card.
posted by Neekee at 2:42 PM on September 12, 2009 [19 favorites]

They have tons of support from family and friends. They don't need ours...but I want to communicate our condolences in an appropriate manner.

They may already have lots of support from family and friends, but that doesn't mean they won't appreciate yours in addition. I'd drop off a card, and maybe follow up a few days later by bringing some food for them. They're probably not spending much time right now thinking of the disagreement they had with the neighbours, so your gesture is likely to be accepted as it's intended.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 2:44 PM on September 12, 2009

Yes, food definitely, with a handwritten note. The note need not be gushy or overwrought, just something sympathetic and neighborly: "We are so sorry for your loss. You are in our thoughts [or prayers, if that's your thing]. Please let us know if there's anything we can do for you."
posted by amyms at 2:49 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

A handwritten card with a thoughtful, concise message is always the right thing to do.
posted by matteo at 2:57 PM on September 12, 2009

Nthing that a card is absolutely an appropriate gesture that is certain to be appreciated.
posted by desuetude at 3:03 PM on September 12, 2009

Agreed that a note would be lovely, and food would be a very generous gesture as well. As a practical note on the food thing, if you decide to do that, I'd recommend "real" food (even if it's store-bought) as opposed to sweets. The last time we had a death in our family, we received tons of pound cakes and cookies, but very little actual, you know, sustenance. And boy, will it be needed and appreciated.
posted by somanyamys at 3:12 PM on September 12, 2009 [5 favorites]

I wouldn't do anything. It's not a requirement in modern society to show solidarity with or provide moral support to neighbors you don't really know, even though it's rather commendable that you want to. Personally I wouldn't be keen on getting anything more than a card from someone I didn't really like in this situation - I'd probably throw food or gifts in the trash - but that's me.
posted by wackybrit at 3:16 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with somanyamys. Catered trays of sandwiches desserts can pile up quickly. Something like pre-cooked, frozen lasagna is great because they can take it out to microwave or reheat in the oven whenever it's needed.
posted by bonobothegreat at 3:21 PM on September 12, 2009

I think wackybrit is in the minority. It doesn't sound like you have an active feud, just some awkwardness from a past disagreement. Sure, it's not a requirement to support them, but if you feel like doing it, you should.
posted by grouse at 3:21 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think a note would be lovely--just express your sympathy, nothing about the tension between you. Actually, to be honest, it seems like an opportunity to mend fences a little bit. Right now your the jerk-neighbor, but you can turn into the jerk-neighbor who they still disagree with about that initial thing, but you sent a lovely card and made them lasagna in their time of need and so you're more ok than you were before. I'm not saying you'll be best friends, but I'd imagine that expressing condolences and maybe bringing food or offering to run errands or whatever you want to do can only be a positive addition to your interaction with them.
posted by Meg_Murry at 3:31 PM on September 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Definitely a card, at least, and attend the funeral. Then in a couple of weeks, when there are fewer cars coming and going, see if their lawn needs mowing, or pick up some extra produce at the farmers' market or from your backyard garden and make them a green salad. It will be appreciated after several weeks of heavy casseroles and lasagnas.
posted by headnsouth at 3:53 PM on September 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

somanyamys is exactly right. Whenever there's been a death in my family, I've had to go out of my way to avoid getting type 2 diabetes.

A while ago a close family friend of ours died, and my folks bought her surviving partner a week's service from a company that specialized in catering warm, healthy individual meals to peoples' houses. This was immensely helpful for the partner, who was so absorbed in her grief that she would forget to put on clothes, let alone prepare food for eating. With the catering thing, she could call the company when she got hungry and have a meal ten minutes later.

Stuff like that is really helpful. Food that can be frozen and preserved is good, too - I like the frozen lasagna suggestion - because eventually people will stop coming by as frequently, but the grief (and related depression) will remain. And they will still need to eat.

I guarantee you that such gifts will not be thrown in the trash. Solidarity, as wackybrit says, may not be "required" in modern society, but it's not required by modern society that people not be total dicks, either. That doesn't mean it's a great idea to be a total dick all the time. Major crises like this go beyond petty neighborly feuds. People should be able to rely on their communities when shit like this happens; show them that they can.
posted by ellehumour at 4:10 PM on September 12, 2009

If you must do anything, a card. Nothing else. Don't go to the funeral.
posted by turgid dahlia at 4:25 PM on September 12, 2009

Treat them as you would any neighbor with whom you had no conflict. That's been erased. So: some food, a card with a note of sympathy. I don't think you need to go to the funeral unless you're a bit socially expert and won't flounder with what to say after, I'm so sorry.

As for food--anything. It's the thought that counts, it really is. They're not going to talk about you as those assholes who sent sugar cookies. Italian food reheats well, soup is good for lunch when you have no idea what else to eat, some muffins for breakfast might be nice. When I can't think of what to eat, I like cheese and bread. But I really don't think it matters, as long as you're not doing anything ridiculous like sending over a box of girl scout cookies or a bottle of champagne.

Losing a 19 year old child is so tragic I think it has to be like having a lobotomy. They probably aren't functioning at all. Don't expect a thank you just do the couple of small things that say you sincerely feel terribly for them and you'll have done well.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:38 PM on September 12, 2009

A simple but thoughtful handwritten note posted to them is quite sufficient. In the event you do run into them, do not avoid the subject. Express your condolences, offer any help they might need and move on.

This is not an opportunity to make amends, to become friends or anything else.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:45 PM on September 12, 2009

Yep, any "real food" dish that can be stored for a while and eaten later would be good. Deliver it in either a disposable container or one that they can keep - and let them know that they can keep the container, you don't expect them to return it. (Our next door neighbor gave us a crockpot full of barbecue when Dad died, which was incredibly generous, but the whole time we were thinking "man, we gotta hurry up and wash that crockpot.")

I agree with headnsouth's recommendation of checking in on them a few weeks from now, but only if you're comfortable with it. Right now just about everyone they know is stopping by and saying "please let me know if you need anything," and chances are they have no earthly idea what they need just yet. In three or four weeks, the gestures and offers won't be coming in as often, and it's probable that they'll have a better idea of what help they do need, but might feel a bit presumptuous asking for it.

That said, if you get a frosty reception from them, don't take it personally - but do take it as a cue to back off. Just like you're under no real obligation to help them out, they're under no obligation to want your help.
posted by Metroid Baby at 5:52 PM on September 12, 2009

Speaking from the position of someone who lost his son at the age of 20.

You are a neighbor, you could possibly be more support than family that lives miles or cities away.

Pretend the old disagreement has been erased.

When my son died, an aunt who had recently lost her husband communicated the following, "the most hurtful thing is to be that person who, when they see me coming, crosses the street to avoid talking to me." That statement summed it up.

Initially there will be a lot of support and attention paid to this family, and, quicker than you would imagine, most people will be uncomfortable about talking about it. A lot of folks will be expecting them to "get over it" in weeks or months, when it reality, it will probably take years and years...

Be willing to listen.

I know you just wanted advice on how to express condolences, and this encouragement may be more involvement than you're seeking.

Initially, send a card, and after the dust has settled, please stop by and just listen....
posted by HuronBob at 6:55 PM on September 12, 2009 [6 favorites]

Agree with all about acting as if there has never been a rift--this is BIG and you are their neighbors--just extend your love and friendship as you would to any other neighbor/human being. I am certain they will appreciate it...especially because you are sincere and your condolences are from the heart.
posted by naplesyellow at 8:25 PM on September 12, 2009

I think your instinct here is right. Forget about being a neighbor - you're a human being and you seem to understand that something mind-blowingly horrible has happened to a fellow human being. No one in the vicinity of a tragedy like this should ignore it. (In other words, Wackybrit has a depressingly extreme view of "modern society.") Plus, if you think things are awkward now, how are they going to be if you run into them without having acknowledged what happened?

When someone close to me died, a neighbor I did not know well appeared with flowers. I can't tell you how much it meant to me. In your case, I agree that food and a note would be a good idea. Although flowers, corny as it sounds, could also be good because they are a acknowledgement of the loved one's importance, rather than just a material help to those left behind. If that makes sense?
posted by walla at 10:04 PM on September 12, 2009

Why do you feel like you need express your feelings on the loss of their son? Is it for their benefit or yours? If you reverse the situation, what are you wanting to hear (or receive, a lasagna?) from neighbors that you don't really have a relationship with.

Of course if you are passing them in the hall a quick comment of condolences, and an offer of anything you can do, would be appropriate.

Maybe after some time has passed a gesture (sincere invite to dinner or the like ) would feel and be more comfortable.
posted by boatsforshoes at 10:35 PM on September 12, 2009

Sorry, I didn't mean that to sound so snarky just wondering if you really have an immediate place in their (initial) grieving.
posted by boatsforshoes at 10:40 PM on September 12, 2009

You can't really put yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what you would want. There's a reason grief like this is called "unimaginable."

That's why you follow the forms. The forms say: a freezable, reheatable meal in a disposable container, plus a note that says "I am so sorry for your loss. You are in my thoughts. Please let me know if there is anything I can do." It'll take an hour and a half of your time, and will be received by numb, fogged-out zombies who will nevertheless remember the ways in which their community came through for them.

Good for you recognizing that this terrible event transcends any squabble with a neighbor.
posted by palliser at 7:11 AM on September 13, 2009

No one in the vicinity of a tragedy like this should ignore it. (In other words, Wackybrit has a depressingly extreme view of "modern society.")

That's because I live in Britain where sticking your head in the sand around events like this is the standard behavior. But then we also have obligatory "screening" for anyone who has regular contact with third party children coming in later this year, so the concept of trust in our society is pretty much kaput anyway.

Still, it's nice to see the colonies are still keeping a bit of community spirit going, eh? :)
posted by wackybrit at 10:47 AM on September 13, 2009

>Why do you feel like you need express your feelings on the loss of their son? Is it for their benefit or yours? If you reverse the situation, what are you wanting to hear (or receive, a lasagna?) from neighbors that you don't really have a relationship with.

But the OP does have a relationship with these neighbours. It's just not a good or close relationship. This is different than having no relationship at all with someone (a stranger, in other words).

A sympathy card that says, "I am very sorry for your loss" is an acknowledgement that something terrible has happened to fellow human beings. I don't see how this would be inappropriate or self-centred on the part of the OP. [I'm speaking in general, not picking on you particularly, boatsforshoes.]
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:47 AM on September 13, 2009

Why do you feel like you need express your feelings on the loss of their son? Is it for their benefit or yours?

Well, most acts of kindness benefit the giver as well as the receiver. Sympathy is a pretty basic and universal human impulse. keith0718, don't let anyone make you feel weird about offering condolences.
posted by desuetude at 4:11 PM on September 13, 2009

The situation has changed, and small disagreements or previous coldness are no longer important. Simple kindness is always appropriate. Write them a brief note, something like, "We are deeply sorry for your loss," and take over a nourishing casserole. As Bob above has suggested, be willing to listen---now and in the future.
posted by ragtimepiano at 9:59 PM on September 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

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