Sorry, Not Sorry: A Condolence Lesson for the President

Army Sergeant La David Johnson - Condolence Call From Trump

 

For most of us, finding appropriate words of sympathy for a grieving friend, colleague or family member can be particularly challenging. At such times, many of us default to: “I’m so sorry for your loss.”

The sheer innocuous-ness of that phrase sometimes makes it feel trite—or worse, not heartfelt. And yet, its simplicity sums up what courses through our minds as we offer comfort to someone going through the unimaginable. How much more difficult, then, are condolences for a fallen soldier.

The tragic death of Army Sergeant La David Johnson and the subsequent condolence call made by President Donald Trump is under great scrutiny today, and rightly so. The fallen serviceman, who was killed in an ISIS attack in Niger earlier this month, is survived by his wife, Myeshia—who is six months pregnant—and their two young children.  He was 25.

As conveyed firsthand yesterday by Democratic Congresswoman Frederica Wilson, who was with Mrs. Johnson at the time she received the commander-in-chief’s call, the president’s attempt at sympathy included mentioning the soldier “knew what he was getting into” when he enlisted. If accurate, the Florida represntative’s report of the conversation, provides echoes of “I like people who weren’t captured,”—the tone-deaf statement of then-candidate Donald Trump in speaking about longtime prisoner-of-war Senator John McCain of Arizona.

Comforting the family members of a fallen soldier may well rank up there as one of the hardest calls a commander-in-chief must ever make. It is of the utmost importance that every syllable convey sympathy, concern, tact and support. To come off as callous—or even jocular—is worse than offering no comfort whatsoever.

Being president is not easy. Sometimes there are perfect words. Sometimes there are no words at all.