How not to express condolences

It’s not easy talking to grieving loved ones when someone dies and I’ve made a good living doing it. There’s not much you can say and it’s pretty easy to say either the wrong thing, or something that sounds insincere.

I attended a funeral years ago for the daughter of a former boss, who’d been killed by a drunk driver while the family was driving to vacation.

At the wake, he thanked me for traveling as far as I did and I reflexively said, “happy to be here.” Stupid. And I could never take it back. I’m guessing we all have stories of the time we blundered our way through a condolence.

Back when I ran a small radio station in a small town, three children were killed on their way to Bible school when their van slid into the path of a snowplow.

I got a call from the father a few days later. He wanted to come onto the radio station to talk to a grieving community and would I please do the live interview?

I did and don’t remember a moment about it but I’m fairly certain it included some comments or questions that could be considered stupid. But at the end of the talk, he felt better, I felt better, the small-town I served felt better. The grace was that we all tried and acknowledged that we were all in uncharted territory. We had the luxury of the benefit of the doubt.

So I tend to cut a break to people who try and fail to convey sympathies and today’s op-ed in the Star Tribune by Barb Lutz appears to do the same thing, although, perhaps, to a lesser degree. She’s a retired Army captain from Minneapolis who writes about the attempt by the president to provide the thanks of a grateful nation to the wife of a dead soldier.

She was a casualty assistance officer in the 1980’s and writes that as much as she dislikes the president, she has no doubt he was trying to do the right thing. The problem is he failed, she says.

He didn’t rehearse or write down what he was going to say to a widow with two young children and a third on the way. He just “winged it,” as he often does, with disastrous results. A few minutes of preparation were all that was needed.

And now that the deed is done, he is incapable of admitting he was clumsy and inappropriate, and apologizing. It’s all about him.

But in my mind, the one who was most at fault and acted most inappropriately was retired Gen. John Kelly. First of all, as the president’s chief of staff, he gave Trump horrible advice about what to say. When a CAO had talked to Kelly about his own son “knowing what he was getting into,” it was a message from one Marine to another. Kelly would have understood. One would never say something like that to a young widow who has had no experience in the military.

Kelly should have advised Trump that he should say repeatedly how sorry he was, and how Johnson was a hero. And when you’re talking to someone bereaved, you need to know the name of their loved one and use it. This is common sense. Anyone, including the president, who officially interacts with a bereaved military family member should first get training from a professional bereavement specialist.

For sure, the president makes it hard to separate politics from humanity. His inability to acknowledge he wasn’t very good at talking to a grieving wife only made things worse.

We in the media have been only too willing to stir the pot more on the story.

And it’s probably far too late now to step back and acknowledge he made the call, despite increasing evidence that he’s incapable of empathy.

But, he made the call.

Sadly, he’ll likely have far too many opportunities to do it better.

  • >>But, he made the call.<>…he’s incapable of empathy.<<

    This statement doesn't even begin to scratch the surface.

    • I listened to NPR Politics podcast which was quite good in the tick-tock and Mara Liasson (I think it was Mara) said exactly the opposite…that he wanted to make the call over the objections of Kelly.

      • KTFoley

        Speculating here, but perhaps Kelly is aware of the President’s track record on extemporaneous speaking: he mangles the delivery and loses the message himself, the audience loses the message in return, the public loses its mind, the President loses all restraint, his priorities reassert themselves via social media so strongly that it takes far too much optimism to grant him a selfless motive.

        Seriously, what is so much more important that it overrode preparing for a conversation? keeping to a script? sending a letter? After nine months of shriveled futile attempts at social conduct, “empathy” does not spring to mind.

        • emersonpie

          //Seriously, what is so much more important that it overrode preparing for a conversation?

          1. A reporter asks about the soldiers who died in Niger.
          2. The question makes him uneasy and then tried to deflect by asserting an untruth about Obama and previous presidents never or rarely making condolence calls.
          3. Trump reflexively wants to out-do Obama.
          4. When he’s back at the Oval Office he has to make those calls NOW. He asks Kelly for help. He gets a “chart”with the soldiers’ names. He leaps in. He has all the best words, he is very intelligent, he has the greatest memory. He can do this better than Obama. No further preparation necessary.
          5. He didn’t make those calls to comfort the grieving families. He made them to one-up Obama.

          • >>He made them to one-up Obama.<<

            He made them in a futile attempt to one-up President Obama.

      • That surprises me seeing that he is rushing to send condolence letters to other fallen service members:

        https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/10/donald-trump-is-rush-shipping-condolences-to-military-families/543606/

  • Erick

    When my father died I made a conscious decision not to take offense at anything anybody might say or do during those hard days. Somehow I can’t extend the same courtesy to an commander who can’t prepare or admit a mistake.

    • MikeB

      People are trying to say something comforting but in their nervousness it comes out awkward. We know what they are trying to convey.

      But those who do this as part of their job, no excuses.

  • MrE85

    If all the attention made to this phone call can lead to answers to some broader questions on just what happened that night in Niger, and what our military mission is in that county, I will be grateful. And surprised.

    • X.A. Smith

      Indeed. This entire situation began with a reporter’s question about what happened in Niger, and the President deflected the question by bringing up the condolence calls and made up a story about how President Obama didn’t even make those calls.

      We still don’t have a good answer to the original question. And what about Chad? Chad was added to the list of travel ban countries for no discernible reason, even though they are an important partner in the region in the fight against ISIS, et. al.

      Chad then pulled their forces out of Niger. Then this ambush incident happened. Then the President wouldn’t make any statement or answer questions about the incident.

      • Jerry

        He has no idea what is going on. His job is to distract us from the real damage that is being done to this country.

  • AL287

    It wasn’t the botched condolence or the delay in making the call that bothers me about this whole incident.

    It’s the fact that Trump could not let go of the issue and had to keep it hanging on for over a week. To add insult to injury, he made a mockery of a well-respected, 4-star Marine general to assuage his overblown ego.

    I’m sure Trump has a blacklist of every news reporter, staffer or cabinet member that has somehow slighted him or doesn’t believe he is God’s gift to the presidency.

    When you can’t admit mistakes, you are doomed to repeat them as Trump has been doing over and over and over again.

    His staff has tried to tell him this but he doesn’t listen to anyone but himself.

    The Republican Congress is the ultimate example of the bystander effect. Just stand by and don’t get involved. You don’t want to lose the midterm elections and confront him.

    Sad and disturbing.

  • Sam M

    Every time the story is brought up I just cringe and get a pit in my stomach. Nothing about it is right. Blech.

  • kevins

    Having recently lost my first son, I would blame no one for misspoken words as long as the intent was sincere. You simply do not know how to proceed when these things happen…you just do the best you can. The Prez however was winging it, and I do not for one minute think that he was genuinely grieved by the loss, except in the context of getting caught by the press for having not thought about doing anything. My wife and I would have refused his call were we in that position.

    • I’m sorry for your loss and can’t even conceive of the grief of losing a child.

      • kevins

        Thanks.