Relay: Kind Words Really Matter

A ladder up from somewhere dark and undesirable
The writer and her father, Robert Sampson, who died on Dec. 20.

Kind words offered from a genuine place are the best type of words. They are a walking stick on uneven terrain. They are a ladder up from somewhere dark and undesirable. 

I was in a place like that three times within the span of a year, with the death of my father in December, the passing of my maternal grandmother in June, and the death of a dear cousin the December before that. But word by word, whether written or spoken, the sincere condolences shared by the people around me were what brought me back to a place where I could be okay.

Literally the physical representation of carrying those words around with me, the sympathy cards I have received from family members, friends, and colleagues have spent the last month tucked inside my handbag. That way, I know there are kind words intended for my comfort pretty much any time I need them.

Which, sadly, has been often. You never know when a “whoa” moment is going to hit you. Just last Thursday, for instance, I was in Starbucks and grabbed a bunch of napkins to take into the car along with my coffee. I added them to the pile of napkins I forgot I already had in my car, then realized I was a champion fast-food napkin-hoarder like my dad had been. Is that hereditary or is it a learned behavior? I wanted to laugh and cry at the same time. I closed my eyes, thought back on some of the sentiments that friends and colleagues have shared, and was able to keep it together.

In the aftermath of my father’s death just a few days before Christmas, some of the most meaningful words of support I heard came from a community figure well known and well respected on the East End. Along with her condolences came some advice, too: Look into the work of Brené Brown, a social worker and researcher who focuses on vulnerability, shame, and empowerment. I’ve watched several of Ms. Brown’s YouTube videos and purchased one of her books, and so far what I’ve learned is that allowing oneself to be vulnerable — in moments of grief, for instance, or in joy or uncertainty — lays the groundwork for incredible personal growth. It is the birthplace of courage and change. And that place between your vulnerability and others’ reactions to your particular life event or situation is where true friends are made and lost. That is the space where kind words really matter.

They can do no harm. Why do they not flow more freely? Go on; give them. Mean them. There will be no regrets.

Also know that some of the nicest sentiments are actually questions. To go beyond “I’m sorry for your loss” with something like “Tell me about your father” indicates an extra level of care. The implication is that you’re being not just compassionate but also that you are sharing a few moments of your time for your grieving friend to listen to what she has to say. Thus, the effect of a sympathetic question is therapeutic.

My sister and I also got a lot of kind words in the form of spiritual thoughts and prayers sent our way, and although we are not strictly religious people, to be held in someone’s prayers was a comfort and an honor as well.

I was pretty young when my mother taught me the proper way to write a thank-you note. It was appropriate to gratefully and formally acknowledge one’s actions or gifts. Nowadays I’ll usually start with something like, “Thank you for your thoughtful gift,” or in this case, “Thank you for your kind words,” and go on to share a note about how that person’s gift or letter impacted me. But somehow, a notecard didn’t seem a big enough way to express how grateful I am for everyone’s well-wishes and concern.

This is my thank-you for all those kind words and prayers.

Thank you.


Christine Sampson is a reporter at The Star.