I spent a wonderful few days in New York earlier this month for my dad’s 87th birthday. While I was there, Sam called and told me that the fathers of two friends of ours had died.
I of course felt more fortunate than ever to be having this happy time with my dad. But it also got me thinking about condolence letters — how, even as a professional writer, I find myself tongue-tied and stumbling.
I’m not talking about deaths where I knew the deceased really well — this is more about cases where I barely knew the person who died, and sometimes don’t know the bereaved all that well either. But I still want to share my sympathy.
Okay. I start out: Dear xxxx, I was saddened to hear of the loss of your xxxxx.
All fine so far.
But then my pen wants to start writing all sorts of horrible things. I feel a pressing compulsion to make the mourner feel better. “At least he is no longer suffering.” “At least you had 30 good years with him.” “He is in a better place now.”
Which is complete b.s., because I don’t believe in a heaven, and wouldn’t it be better to have 40 years rather than 30, and who the hell am I to suggest that their loved is better off dead than suffering?
So then I feel a secondary urge to say that I know how they feel. Which I really don’t.
Or I feel compelled to spout something that sounds profound, like “No one can ever take the place of a parent.” More b.s.! Maybe this person hated his father. Maybe this person has been in therapy for the past 20 years because of his father. Who am I to know?
In any case, I find myself at a loss for words — words with integrity — when confronted with death.
I suspect this is not just me: It is an outgrowth of how our society tries to ignore death as much as possible. We don’t get much practice talking about death. So then when we do have to talk about it, we feel uncomfortable and try to apply Band-aids or make it go away.
During that recent visit with my dad, I stopped by an exhibit at the Jewish Museum about the Cone sisters of Baltimore. They were big collectors of modern art, and when Claribel Cone died, Henri Matisse wrote a condolence letter to her sister Etta.
That letter was on display at the museum:
“My Dear Mademoiselle, I know that words lose meaning in the face of great emotion but allow me to tell you of my sad surprise in learning by letter from my family of your sorrow. I think of your great sadness knowing your attachment to Dr. Cone and imagine how much her rich and distinguished character enhanced your days. Believe me that I share your grief, my dear mademoiselle, and want you to accept the expression of my affectionate and devoted feelings.”
The Cones were major patrons of Matisse, so it’s possible this note had elements of marketing as well as friendship. But still, I found it eloquent and authentic. I wished my condolences letters sounded like that.
What makes for a good condolence letter?
I usually try to put myself in the shoes of the bereaved and think, What would I want a friend to say if I had just lost somebody? I guess I’d want them to acknowledge my loss, share a memory or two of the person (if they knew him), and offer their support. Beyond that, I’m not really sure.
What do you think?
I’m sad to say that this is a question that’s likely to come up more and more. At 53, I have lots of friends with parents in their 80s or even 90s.
There are going to be plenty of opportunities to work on my condolence notes over the next few years.