I’m in The Japan Times again this week with an article about how to offer your condolences: “Condolences: what to say when there’s nothing you can say.”
I’ve had this happen to me twice now. I detail the first one in the article. I managed to handle the situation with a little help from my friends.
But the second I’m not sure if I handled as adeptly. My host mother in Aizu lost her husband last year, and another friend in town let me know that he had died. I shot off an email in both Japanese and English. She’d been part of the English Conversation classes in town, and at one point her English had been quite good. I thought it was a fair balance, seeing as how my Japanese has deteriorated slightly from its peak. Looking back, I did manage to get some of the phrases in there, notably お悔やみを申し上げます, but I missed ご愁傷様.
When I visited this past December, I asked another family what I should say in these circumstances, and they told me about ご愁傷様.
In the process of writing the article for the JT, I came across the blog 考える葬儀屋さんのブログ. It’s been running since 2009, possibly inspired by the 2008 movie Departures, which I’ve still yet to see…just put in an order on the Chicago Public Library.
Highly recommended reading. His look at the difference between 「公」 and 「私」toward the end of the first article is especially interesting.
The two most useful bits for me (in addition to what I already included in the article) were the following:
1. ご愁傷様 can be used in non-funereal situations as lightly ironic/funny. The examples he gives are of offering “condolences” to a coworker who has to work on a weekend and of Prime Minister Kan’s wife, who apparently said the line 「おめでたいと言っていいのかどうか。逆に、ご愁傷さまかもしれませんよ」 when Kan was inaugurated.
2. Families who are grieving can respond to ご愁傷様 with the phrase お心遣（づか）いありがとうございます (Thank you for your consideration).
I hope not to find myself in the latter situation anytime soon, but it’s always good to be prepared to dig up phrases like these. Part of doing Japanese is performing the ritualistic parts of the language. These are signs to others, and as a foreigner, I’d argue that they take on heightened meaning when building relationships. Once you’ve gotten beyond these, you can go deeper.