This has been a week that has gone out of its way to remind me of the fragility of life. In national news, a well known celebrity who had struggled throughout his career with both depression and addiction lost his battle with those foes and committed suicide; in regional news, a wrong way driver on the New York State Thruway slammed into an oncoming car, killing both himself and the other driver; and in even closer to home news, a friend and fellow Stampin’ Up! demonstrator learned that one of her customers was the victim of a murder / suicide. (I later learned that the victim was the sister of another Stampin’ Up! demonstrator in the area, though I don’t know that woman personally.)
Now while none of these incidents affected me directly, coming right on top of each other, they have had me doing a lot of thinking (not to mention a lot of praying for all involved) about what if I had known the victims and/or their families. What possibly could be said in a note or card that could be of any comfort?
Sympathy cards can be hard to write even in the “best of times”. Wait. Is there such a thing when a death is involved? But I hope you understand what I mean. When the death is not unexpected; when the person has lived a full and “good” life; when there is something to be celebrated (the life lived) rather than mourned (the death itself). But even then, death can be an uncomfortable subject and finding “just the right words” hard to do.
One of the most important rules, perhaps the most important rule, is to say something, anything. This is not an occasion you can ignore, like your cousin’s 34th birthday; the cousin you last saw when you were both teenagers. No, a death should be acknowledged. As I’ve seen written elsewhere – it’s not like those affected by the death will have forgotten it’s happened and you’ll be “reminding” them of it by sending them a card. No, you’ll be letting them know they have people who care about them, who are thinking about them.
I remember when my dad died how much each card meant. I hadn’t let many people know he was ill. In fact, practically no one knew. Not even my closest friends. And definitely none of my co-workers. I didn’t want to be asked over and over again “how’s your dad doing”, because I wasn’t sure I would be answering that question with the proper amount of caring and concern (whatever that means; what can I say, I was young and insecure and didn’t want to be judged every time by my response). How I wish now I had said something. I think I hurt feelings, particularly those of my friends, by not letting them know what I was going through.
So each card I received, particularly those from co-workers, who I hadn’t expected to hear a thing from, meant a great deal to me. They had gone out of their way to reach out to me. I figure the few who did send me cards maybe had some experience in their own background that made them understand my silence on the subject, so they wanted to let me know they were there for me, if I did need someone. It’s been over 21 years since my dad died and I can still name the handful of co-workers who sent me cards. Obviously it made a big impression.
I also remember my mom’s friend who sent me a “thinking of you” card the first Father’s Day after my dad passed away. She told me someone had done the same for her after her dad died, and she remembered how comforting it was, since the mourning doesn’t end right after the death. It continues and is particularly raw on all those “firsts” without your loved one – first Father’s Day / Mother’s Day first Thanksgiving, first birthday, Christmas, Hanukkah, and other holidays you used to celebrate together, etc.
So that’s suggestion number two: don’t pretend it didn’t happen. Again, the people involved won’t have forgotten. In my Christmas card last year to a friend whose sister had died unexpectedly the previous spring I didn’t simply wish her a Happy Christmas, and that all be merry and bright. Because I was pretty sure, having just lost her sister eight months earlier, it was going to be a more somber occasion than usual. Instead, I said something along the lines of “No doubt you will be missing your sister this Christmas. May you find comfort and peace in your memories and the company of your friends and family.”
Rule number three is practical advice that I’ve learned over the years (before becoming my own card maker): Always have a supply of sympathy cards on hand at home, just in case. It can be kind of embarrassing to be standing in the card aisle of a store with tears streaming down your face as you try to pick out an appropriate sympathy card. The degree to which the tears flow is usually in direct proportion to how close you were to the deceased and/or the person you are sending the card to. This is why I tend to stick to blank cards when I do have to buy them – no pre-written sentiments to make me cry in the store. But even then there is a risk – as I think about the individuals involved, the general sadness of the situation, and how I would feel in their shoes, the tears still tend to flow.
And, getting back to my opening thoughts, what would I write in my blank cards? First off, if it were a violent, unexpected death, I’d be honest: “I can’t begin to imagine all the emotions you must be going through at this time.” And I’d be supportive: “You haven’t been very far from my thoughts since [Alan’s] passing. And my prayers too.
Then, and this is for any type of death, it depends on the relationship to the deceased / survivors. For example:
- A reference to a personal memory about the deceased: “[Alan] had such talents for friendships and cooking. I am going to miss his ‘Garner’s Gourmet Gatherings.’” or
- An offer to help the surviving family members: “I have some vacation time coming up at work, so let me know if I can be of any help with getting your dad’s house cleaned out; I know we’ve often kidded about what a daunting task that would be.”
About the best advice I can give is this: write from your heart. Several years back my sister-in-law started using the phrase “in was on my heart” to do such-and-such. And you know what, it never seems to fail that whatever her heart leads her to do or say pretty much came out to be the right thing. So I’ve tried to adopt that attitude as well. Just trust your heart/gut. Sure, you can search the Internet for the right phrasing, and there are plenty of sites out there to help (I’ll even do a future post with some of my favorite quotations for sympathy cards), but they don’t know the deceased like you do, or know the relationship you have with the surviving family members like you do. Use this knowledge to select the most appropriate phrases, or forge your own path and write what your heart tells you to say.