By Erica Brown
Author of Happier Endings
There is an art to the consolation note, the sympathy card, the letter marking loss and sadness—even if you cannot share in the sadness because the person who died is an absolute stranger. I find that what helps me write such a letter is meditating for a moment before I begin, particularly focusing on the reader’s face when he or she opens the letter and skims its few sentences to see if they will capture a memory, share an as-yet untold story, or regurgitate a few unlovable clichés.
What words will somehow bridge the distance or offer a little sliver of solace? Maybe none. Maybe some. Maybe some, but only with time.
It is so hard to write a moving sympathy card, so hard that we often forget to get around to it, mostly because we never wanted to write one in the first place. But I know that many mourners need these cards. They are buoyed by the little postal gifts of love contained in small envelopes around small, heartfelt feelings of loss. Many of those letters get saved, put in an album and re-read on special occasions or anniversaries of the bereaved.
In some cases the words flow furiously, and there is simply not enough space for all the emotions we want to share. More often, however, we do not know the person who has passed well or at all: the spouse of a colleague, the child of a person in our book club, or the mother of someone in our church. The impulse is to say, “I have nothing to say” and then go on and not say it. But please do say it because you never know how much a little sentiment from a stranger can affirm the fact that our world is suspended on small acts of love and compassion, especially at a time of grief and loss.
If you don’t know the mourner or the one who died well, here are a few recommendations to get you going:
• Write no more than three sentences if you are struggling to find words.
• Avoid clichés. The mourning period abounds in them, and they are tiresome. Make sure that one of your three sentences is unique to you.
• Among the clichés to avoid most are those that can cause theological pain. Saying to someone “He is in a better place” may not feel compelling to a mourner who felt the best place was right next to him.
• Write the note as soon as you hear about the news. A short delay often becomes a very long delay, and then all of our good intentions don’t even make it to “return to sender.”
• Write from the heart about how difficult it is to lose someone or the bond that the mourner may have shared with the one he or she lost.
• This is not about you. You may share something you learned from the person or from the mourner but the focus is on the loss and the one who lost.
• Don’t use euphemisms for death that are so obscure that you can’t figure out from the note what actually happened.
• Avoid the passive tense. “I am sorry,” “I am praying,” or “I am thinking” sounds much more genuine and active than “Please accept my thoughts on the passing of…”
• The more specific you are about the person who has died, the more comfort you will bring.
• Often the most important communication is the note after the note. Send out your first note right away but then make a point of marking your calendar for a check-in note a month or six months or a year later, or maybe even all three. Emotions evolve. Catch them in the process.
• Make sure you put your return address or contact information on the note so that if the mourner wants to continue a meaningful conversation, the possibility exists.
I just finished writing a note to a man my age who lost his wife to cancer. She must have been in her late forties or early fifties. Too young to leave this world. I do not know him well. We worked together a few times on a project; the news of his loss traveled quickly in our professional circles. Two people described his wife as full of life but that description fits no longer. Or does it? If your memories center on a person brimming with energy, then the pulsing does not go away in your head and your heart even if that person is not full of life anymore. The breath has gone, but the emotion lingers.
In the note, I wrote about the great hole of loss that seems impossible to fill in at times like these. I was thinking, as I wrote it, of something I read in the book, Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Dr. Daniel Siegel: “Grief allows you to let go of something you’ve lost only when you begin to accept what you now have in its place.” Sympathy cards will never take the place of the person who is no longer with us, but if we join mourners in their journey of pain, we can help them grieve well. Grieving well will allow them to place loving memories in the hole created by loss.
Dr. Erica Brown is the author of Happier Endings and the scholar-in-residence for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is a National Jewish Book Award finalist. For more information, visit Erica’s website, follow her on Twitter, and read an excerpt from Happier Endings. You can also watch video of Erica talking about finding humor in writing a book about death and why she decided to delve into it.