Dying to Write
My mother died last year, and in the days that followed we got a lot of letters. Some of them made us cry, others made us laugh. Both types were good. My stepfather said, “The best condolence letters come from people who’ve been bereaved themselves.” That may be obvious, I suppose, but what exactly makes a good letter?
Letter, postcard, email?
Accepted wisdom says it should be handwritten on nice paper (i.e., preferably not the stuff you stick in the printer), with or without a letterhead, written in ink or rollerball, but never ordinary biro/ballpoint—but then who under 40 owns a fountain pen? And very few people now have their own stationery. I ended up deciding that the main thing is to write a letter early. Get it there in the first week, when the bereaved are in a daze and letters about the missing loved one are about all they can really take in or want to. Some people believe a condolence letter shouldn’t be an email, but I now feel it’s better to hear from someone sooner rather than later or not at all. Perhaps the fact that I live 3,000 miles from where I grew up has contributed to making me feel that email is okay. I admit, however, that in the days following my mother’s death I began to look forward to the arrival of the post each day, and took solace from the growing pile of letters we could keep in a file. I printed out emails from friends, but they were often a single sentence—variations on “Sorry about your mum”—and even the longer ones looked sorrier beside the proper letters.
Still, “there is no rulebook now,” says Lisa Schubert, a vice president for events and marketing at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. When her mother died recently, Lisa found that her instinct was to feel a little put off by email and typewritten letters, but she quickly checked herself. “Everything’s changed. Etiquette isn’t straightforward. It is the thought that counts, and that’s what really matters,” she adds. “I was deeply touched to get messages of kindness and thoughtfulness. The only thing is, I found it difficult to read them at first, particularly longer ones. On some level they are part of the mourning and the grief that comes with it, in waves.”
All that sympathy
Looking through the file now, I find it’s the picture cards and postcards that seem lesser efforts. A cheery picture isn’t the cheer, the letter is. Postcards feel lazy and prove that it isn’t merely the thought that counts; sometimes it’s also the envelope that the thought comes in. Another friend whose husband died recently received a lot of printed cards, an extraordinary number of which depicted stems of white orchids. “These are the flowers of choice,” she says, “and they appear not just on cards but in legions of pots and vases, so the living rooms of the bereaved begin to resemble a real funeral parlour. And the cards nearly always bear some variation of ‘sympathy’—whether ‘heartfelt,’ ‘caring,’ ‘deepest’ or whatever.” Her favorite card was their antithesis—bright yellow, showing a brown church door, with the simple line “Flowers at the church door”; and not an orchid in sight, but a pot of bright yellow and red chrysanthemums.
The trouble with so many of these printed cards is that it seems important that a condolence letter should feel private and look considered. It shouldn’t be confused with any wish-you-were-here-isms. And I can forgive the teenage goddaughter her postcard from the seaside, but not the family friend of 60 years who sent one too. The handwriting seems less important; truthfully the ease of reading a typed letter almost dispels any negative impression the impersonality of typing suggests.
Tell me a story
The single thing that everyone I talked to agreed on was that it was the personal remembrances that made for a good letter. Stephanie Allison, whose mother, the painter Lois Howard, just died, says, “The best condolences did not condole—rather they recounted some specific memory. For example, ‘She bounced into our room with a bouquet of flowers and a breathless “Hi, I’m Lois, let’s order champagne.”‘” The widow sick of white orchids loved the letters that, surprisingly perhaps, tended to focus on the same conclusions about her husband’s “cheeky smile”; “the twinkle in his eye”; “his hearty laugh.” And I found that while longer isn’t always better—too long a letter is a bore—anything more than a thin sentence acknowledging the moment is good. A story about the dead person is always a plus, and a bonus if it’s funny or touching, or has never been told before. The good letters we got told stories, shared memories of first encounters, told us things we didn’t know—tales of small kindnesses; examples of character; funny, tender things. To one of my brother’s old girlfriends my mother apparently dished wisdom about sex and help with subsequent relationships. Another person remembered how my mother could laugh until she had to wipe away the tears. Everyone mentioned her stylishness and sense of humor. “My favorite,” says Stephanie, “was from my mother’s painting teacher, who explained that he hadn’t liked her at first, but came to appreciate and admire her. It made the remembrance seem genuine and authoritative.”
Do’s and don’ts
People who dodged the “dead” issue were annoying. There’s no way round this part. In my opinion dressed-up euphemisms should be banned; “departed, “gone,” “no longer with us,” “moved on,” “demise,” “passing,” “passed,” or “passed away” are all horrible and make the writer seem comical, but in a bad way. (Although John Cleese did make it hilarious, in a good way, when remembering his fellow Python, Graham Chapman, at whose funeral he played with the renowned dead parrot sketch: “He has ceased to be, bereft of life, he rests in peace, he has kicked the bucket, hopped the twig, bit the dust, snuffed it, breathed his last, and gone to meet the Great Head of Light Entertainment in the sky.”)
Crossings-out are a no-no too, I think. Get it right or start again—though that’s true of all letters: who wants to work out what was scrawled underneath “your mother was so XXXXX”? And the condolence letter is there to acknowledge and sympathize, not to hurry on to any afterwards or putative happy days to come. “Soon you’ll be feeling so much better…” one old friend wrote to my stepfather, obviously never having heard what Samuel Johnson had to say on diversion: “While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates.” It was extraordinary how many writers felt the need to concentrate on “moving on with life,” or expected that my stepfather might “feel better very soon,” and all this only a week after his wife had died. My friend the widow found that it was advice about the memories of past happiness that actually helped: “That’s what you have to remember—all the good, fun times you had and the jolly get-togethers with both your families.” Another recent widow told my stepfather how she knew he would want to “kick the idiots who ask if you have ‘got over’ her death.” And yet another helpfuly told him that “grief is very physical, like a blow to the stomach,” giving some explanation for our collective exhaustion.
Another don’t: the condolence letter is not a catch-up. After his opening “I’m so sorry to hear…” one writer shifted gears and launched into a wail about his finances. Stick to the subject! The grieving know the world is upside-down and don’t need outside news. More thoughtfully, another old family friend used the opportunity to make good an ancient wrong; it was written with such openness that, strangely, it didn’t seem out of place or too late. And one of my mother’s oldest friends wrote the amazingly true words “grief is the price we pay for love”—which turns out to be a quote from the Queen, of all people.
Letters came from all over. I liked the odd cast of characters—doctor, lawyer, accountant, nurse, carer, older sister, old schoolfriend, goddaughter, niece, nephew, neighbor, colleague, dressmaker, hairdresser, a friend of mine who’d never even met my mother—for a moment united in a common cause. The file has sat on the table in my mother’s home for the last 14 months as a testament to her life, a gift from others that proves she existed and was cared for. “The wackiest I received,” says Stephanie, “was from a Jehovah’s Witness in Texas who must monitor the obits. She sent us a lovely note in an old-fashioned hand and a JW tract. I have to imagine a little lady trolling the internet obituaries, getting addresses and writing to strangers as part of her work for Jesus.”
Getting it right
One of the finest examples of condolence letter-writing belongs to Abraham Lincoln. The brief message below was written in November 1864 to a Mrs. Lydia Bixby, on the loss of her five sons when they fought for the Union side in the Civil War. There’s some dispute that all five were killed and some possibility that Lincoln might actually not have written it, but whatever the facts it stands as a model of the form.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,