Monday, January 12, 2009

The Sympathy Note

A former colleague's husband died. I sat at my desk this morning, blank white stationary card in front of me. The stamp was on the envelope, I had fastened on the return-address label, the address was neatly printed in my tidiest, slowest penmanship. I had procrastinated all I could. What do I say?
I must say something, of course, I must say something. What are the words that are the most comforting, when there are no actual words of comfort?
And then I remembered, it's not about comfort. I thought, what is our job when we send a sympathy card? What were the words that actually brought me a positive message?
For me, it was the "words of comfort" that did not feel positive, in fact they set me into a tailspin of accellerating heartrate, a whirlwind of "you don't understand" and frustration.
I'm sure you will find comfort in your family and friends.
I'm sure the memory of Charlotte will bring a smile to your face.
Thankfully you will have your family around you.
All true, all true.
But me, personally, I don't want to hear that. The words that spoke to me?
I am sad.
I can't imagine what you are going through.
I cannot think of any words for what I feel for you right now.
The honesty of just admitting the tragedy, of acknowledging that the unspeakable has happened, and that it must be spoken, is what I could hear, that is what made me feel actually comforted. I wanted the cards to tell me, I am thinking of you, and all that I am thinking is about how broken your life is, how shattered you are inside, and I give you this, I gift you the privilege of feeling this sadness until you are ready to let something else inside.
I wanted my sympathy cards to let me grieve, not to get me better. I wanted to be sad, and I wanted others to affirm that I had something to be sad about.
I still read them, the cards. I have over 300 of them, filed away in two huge drawers in my storage closet. I have separated them into the ones I love to read, the ones I read again and again and again; and those that didn't do much for me, but which I appreciated anyhow.
Because anything, anything, is better than saying nothing at all.

What about you? What kinds of cards actually made you feel supported? What words made you glad, and what words made you mad?

10 comments:

Heather said...

I'm completely in agreement. I hated the cards that were intended to comfort me; they were only frustrating.

My most cherished was a hand-written letter that included the line "It's not fair, it's just not fair."

ezra'smommy said...

I agree completely - the cards that acknowledged the tragedy and let me be sad were absolutely the most helpful. In particular the ones from babylost mamas who lost their babes 20 or 30 years ago...even if I didn't know them well before losing my Ezra.

Cara said...

I have yet to go back through all Emma's cards. I will -soon. But the one card that struck me so deeply (and was from one of the most unexpected people) came year after her death.

It simply said, "Heavenly Birthdays Do Exist"

Sara said...

I have struggled with writing sympathy cards so many times. I even struggled with the card to the mom who lost her baby days before I lost Henry. I felt somehow that I should have had words for her if nobody else. But you are right there are no words--no words of comfort and no truly adequate words to acknowledge how awful things are. The words that come to mind are: It sucks.

Three notes I got come to mind immediately: one contained a quote from a Mary Oliver poem that my friend said had been going through her mind since she heard the news; one a note from a mom I met at baby group, I don't actually remember the words, but I remember that this woman who barely knew me didn't just sent me a card, but wrote me a little letter; and a note that came a bit later than most from a friend who had lost her sister a few months before in which she talked about the challenges of grieving and what she said rang true to me.

There were others, some that affected me simply because I was surprised the person had sent a card at all or even knew that Henry had died, but those three spring to mind and would be near the top of the pile if I separated my cards into those that I like to reread.

Hope's Mama said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hope's Mama said...

I agree with everything you said Carol and everything said above. I'll share with you my favorite card. I still have them all up, 5 months on. And I think I have about 300, too.
Dear Sally & Simon
We are so very sorry for the loss of your beautiful daughter Hope. That she is not in your arms is so unfair. But know that she already knew who her mummy and daddy were. Sal, she knew your body better than she knew her own. For all those months she was in a place of perfect warmth and comfort. She knew your voice, your laugh, your heartbeat, the rhythms of your days. She knew Simon's voice and gentleness just as well. She would have even been familiar with Miles' bark and no doubt wondered what on earth made that funny sound. She knew the sounds of your life together and felt the love you had for her and each other. It is so cruel that she is not physically with you now but she had so much love in he time she was here, in Sal's body, and she will not be forgotten. We, for one, will alway remember Hope as your first child. We hope that peace and joy return to your lives as you slowly heal from your loss. All our love. X, X, X, X, X, X.

I also got a card that said "congratulations" and you know what, I appreciated that. I still gave birth. We still had a daughter. I deserved to be congratulated.

Gal aka SuperMommy said...

Words where people are not afraid of sharing their pain, too, their sadness... about my sadness, and whatever it brought up in them. Those are the words that made me feel "heard" the most.

BG said...

You know what, that's a really good point. When you are grieving, you want to be sad. And getting a card that validates that is helpful. Great post. Thanks.

internetexplorer said...

Been browsing for some nice sympathy card messages or just any words to uplift and comfort people who are downhearted. I felt happy to have found this inspirational page of yours. These words are very nice. Thanks and keep sharing :)

thị hậu nguyễn said...

Good article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts and some of your journey with us.
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