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by Abigail Van Buren

Dad and Brother's Girlfriend Are Caught in Couch Clinch

DEAR ABBY: When I have to express my sympathy to someone, such as an acquaintance at work over the death of a loved one, I haven't a clue as to what to say. I don't want to bore them with platitudes; they sound meaningless. I want it to be something heartfelt.

In the very near future, I will be losing a friend to cancer. I don't know what to say when my friend talks about dying. I want to be there for the family, and not be tongue-tied about expressing my feelings. Everything I think to say sounds stupid in my mind, so I keep my mouth shut. -- TONGUE-TIED IN TEXAS

DEAR TONGUE-TIED: Your discomfort isn't unusual, but please understand: What may seem "stupid" to you will not seem that way to the friend who is dying, nor to the family that is grieving. My advice is to keep your message brief and simple. To the family who is in mourning, say, "Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss." If they want to talk about it further, they'll let you know. If they don't, they will simply thank you for your condolences.

It is often difficult to converse with someone who is dying because of "survivor guilt," or a fear that we will become too emotional. Believe me, a person with a terminal illness is still the same person you have always loved. Listen to what he or she has to say, because the person may just need to talk. If you are wondering what to tell your friend, tell her what knowing her has meant to you, share what lessons she has taught you, describe those qualities that make her special. And it's all right to say that your life will not be the same without her when she is gone. It's not hokey; it's the truth. And one more thing. It's OK to cry. Tears can be healing.