The husband of a close friend dies. You want to send your condolences. You check the card rack at the local drugstore, but nothing seems right. Too flowery. Too religious. Too formal.
So you sit down with pen and paper and start to write. You are gripped with an overwhelming feeling of helplessness. Everything you start to say seems awkward or cliched or inadequate. You have writer's block.
"So often people tell us that this is a terrible task. It becomes such [that people] just walk away from it or buy a card and just sign their name," says Hilary Stanton Zunin, who co-wrote "The Art of Condolence" (HarperCollins, $19.95) with her husband, Leonard M. Zunin. "People are so afraid of making a mistake."
But saying nothing at all, especially in the case of a close friend, is a bigger sin.
"A condolence letter is a message of compassion and acknowledgment of loss," says Leonard Zunin, senior psychiatric consultant for the California Department of Mental Health.
"It says, in some small measure, that 'I share your pain.' "
The Zunins decided to compile the guide on what to write, say and do at times of loss after they discovered a batch of letters written to military widows who lost their husbands in Vietnam.
The letters had been stored in their attic for about 20 years. Leonard Zunin had served as chief of neuropsychiatry at Camp Pendleton, Calif., during the late '60s and ran support workshops for the widows.
"I asked them to bring in the letters that were the most healing to them, the most meaningful," he says. "It was part of our recovery workshops."
Having helped patients with terminal illnesses and their families, he realized that there were no guidelines to help people say the right thing when condolence is called for.
"I took a look at the letters and came up with the common themes that are comforting to those in pain," Leonard Zunin says. "Then Hilary and I did research into all kinds of letters and writing and talked to everyone we knew."
The result is a useful volume with how-to information to help folks through what is always an awkward and difficult time.
"We found seven common themes that those in grief mention as comforting," Dr. Zunin says.
These seven steps can help you to write a compassionate note.
* Acknowledge the loss. Phrases expressing your shock and dismay are perfectly acceptable here. Mention the deceased by name.
* Express your sympathy. Let the grieving person know you care. It is permissible to use the word death or mention the cause of death.
* Note special qualities of the deceased. Write about those personality traits you valued. If you did not know the deceased, you may have to do this by reputation or write something that helps the grieving person know the value of their loved one.
* Recount a memory about the deceased. This personalizes your letter. Share an anecdote or tell how this person influenced your life. Do not avoid humorous incidents; these can be affirming, especially if the deceased was known for his or her sense of humor.
* Note special qualities of the bereaved person. This is the time for a big pat on the back. The loss of a loved one can be traumatizing and make the bereaved question his or her own ability to handle things.
* Offer assistance. Do not use the phrase, "If there is anything I can do, please call me." That puts too much of a burden on the grieving party.
Offer something specific. Grocery shopping, watching children, running errands, walking a dog, cutting the lawn or any other kind of useful service is much appreciated. Include a time that you will call to arrange a visit.
* Close with a thoughtful word or phrase such as, "Our love is always with you." This is the time to express your support.
There are also some don'ts when it comes to condolence.
Among the no-nos are: "Be thankful you're young and can have another child"; "You must get on with your life"; "It was really a blessing, you must be relieved"; "I heard you're not taking it well"; and "You are lucky to have had him for so long."
"Before you blurt out something, think about what you are saying," says Mr. Zunin. "But if you happen to say something inappropriate, apologize immediately and keep talking to your friend.
"Don't let the possibility that you may make a mistake keep you from saying anything at all."