I’ve been thinking about words of sympathy. I read a daily dose of them, see, because I’m one of the lucky 134 million Americans who hold a Facebook account.
Facebook users are highly sympathetic, but I don’t know if their words always match their actual level of concern. Maybe they do. I’m willing to accept that writing “Prayers” in response to posts about friends’ troubles is shorthand for an expression of deeper sorrow or more complicated compassion. That said, when you write “Prayers” for the loss of a parent and the loss of car keys, we have to wonder how much praying is really going on.
But my main gripe about expressions of grief is that sympathizers so often use the passive voice instead of the active voice. A quick reminder: In the active voice, the subject performs the action: The boy wrecked his four-wheeler. In the passive voice, the subject isn’t taking a direct action: The four-wheeler was wrecked by the boy.
(And hey, that boy damn well better be wearing a helmet.)
You can see that the active voice is more straightforward; it better expresses what’s happening.
• Eric Clapton didn’t sing, “The sheriff was shot by me.” He said, “I shot the sheriff.”
• Frankie Valli crooned, “My eyes adored you,” not “You were adored by my eyes.”
• The Stylistics sang “Betcha by golly, wow,” not “Wow-wee … um … Well, you get my point.
Now, there are times when the passive voice is preferred, such as when the performer is not known: The plastic forks were taken. Another appropriate time to use the passive voice is when the writer wishes to be vague or impersonal. Unfortunately, that’s the context in which so many sympathy expressers place themselves—just when they’re making a very personal statement.
When I am deeply grieved by the death of someone, I try to remember to say or write, “I’ll miss him.” Right? It’s a straightforward expression of my feelings. But I often hear or read people say, “She will be missed.” Or when a colleague leaves the workplace, the farewell card is filled with a similar phrase: “You will be missed.”
What if you went to visitation at a funeral home, and when it came your turn to speak to a friend whose wife had died, you said, “She will be missed.” And what if the grieving widower said, “She will? By whom? Do you have, like, a list? Oh, you mean by you? Do you mean you will miss her?”
Grieving widowers never say that, so don’t worry. But by removing yourself from the statement, you are also removing yourself from the sentiment. You’re saying the deceased will be missed by unnamed individuals or by the population at large or by … what are you saying?
Look, maybe you really do want to take yourself out of the picture. Maybe you won’t miss the guy. But if you will, own it. And say it with words: “I’ll miss him.”