Q: We often have a group condolence card in our workplace for everyone to sign when a co-worker’s family member dies. We’re not a workplace that shares our religious beliefs openly and some folks, we suspect, are agnostic or atheist. For those of us who pray, is it appropriate to say in the communal card that our co-worker is in our thoughts and prayers?
A: It’s great that you have a workplace tradition of condolence cards. In a typical workday, we spend more time with our co-workers than family members.
As we’ve said in this space before, when it comes to another person’s profound loss, it’s better to be awkward in your response than ignore the loss completely.
Workplace condolence cards shouldn’t preclude you from sending your co-worker a private card, too, especially if you are good friends at work or knew the family member who died.
A “public” card differs from a private card, however. Keep your remarks brief. Keep in mind that other co-workers who sign the card after you will likely read your words.
Certain religious sentiments are never appropriate in a condolence card, even if everyone in a workplace shares the same religious beliefs.
The no-nos: saying that a person’s death is “God’s will” or that “God needed another flower in his garden” or that the dead person is now “happy in heaven.”
Loss is loss. What people believe happens in the afterlife, no matter how cheery, doesn’t mitigate the pain and sorrow of losing someone from earthly life.
But back to that standard line: “You are in my thoughts and prayers.” A survey taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found that 16 percent of those surveyed reported no religious affiliation and a quarter of those without affiliation were agnostics and atheists.
So is it time to retire the phrase in public cards?
We asked for an opinion from Fred Edwords, the national director of the United Coalition of Reason, an organization that raises the visibility of nontheistic groups.
His answer might surprise you: “The expression ‘thoughts and prayers’ is often viewed as covering the waterfront, respecting the sensibilities both of those who pray and those who don’t. Thus nobody is left out. That’s why this is an appropriately neutral phrase to use in condolence cards in any office, but particularly in one where the work force is diverse.
“And remember, it isn’t only atheists and agnostics who don’t pray. God ideas fall across a broad spectrum. Many who believe in one sort of god idea or another are also among those who don’t engage in this practice. So sensitivity is the best policy regardless of what people profess.”
Q: My father is buried in Germany. I have no cemetery to visit when I want to honor him or feel close to him. What can I do?
A: In the last 50 years, our society has become astonishingly mobile. Many of us no longer live in the communities where we grew up – or where our parents are buried.
According to the 2000 census, 120 million (46 percent) of the 262 million U.S. residents reported living in a different home than they did in 1995.
We are movers. We go away to school, transfer jobs or marry someone from another part of the country or world, where we establish a new life. And though we enjoy the new opportunities, our lives may become isolated from personal traditions when we leave our hometowns.
To create a special space, use items that evoke happy memories: a football from games of backyard catch, a snapshot of dad standing next to you on your graduation day, his favorite coffee mug.
Keep the symbols simple. For example, a candle or single yellow rose next to your favorite photo of your father easily creates a place of reverence.
When Catherine’s dad died and was buried far away, a friend had a maple tree delivered to her home, saying, “Moms are like flowers, but dads are like trees – tall and strong.”
Catherine planted the tree in the front yard, where she sees it every time she arrives home. Sometimes she sits by the tree when she misses her father.
Indulge in activities your dad enjoyed: Did he love baseball? Take in a game around his birthday or Father’s Day. Then bake his favorite cake and share it with friends. Watch his favorite movie or call his best friend or your siblings and reminisce.
Buy a bouquet of flowers on his birthday. At the end of the day give the arrangement to someone who would appreciate your thoughtfulness.
Did your dad have a favorite charity? Make a donation in his memory – send a check or spend a day volunteering. Continuing your father’s generosity memorializes him in a tangible way.
While standing at the burial site of your dad may seem the only way to honor and feel close to him, you are not limited by geography. Your imagination and memories will help you create personal traditions that offer comfort – no matter where you live.