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.