The intimidating art of condolence letters

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.

Woman Writing a Letter, by Gerard ter Borch (Amsterdam, 1655)

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.

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13 Responses to “The intimidating art of condolence letters”

  1. susiew Says:

    When my Dad passed away a few months ago, i got a note from a friend who I hadn’t seen or been in contact with since high school. She wrote a couple of sentences about how she remembered my dad in his speedy little car and it was very sweet, bringing back memories from nearly 40 years before, and from a different person’s perspective. It even helped me see my dad in a new way.

    So from this experience, I think that in a condolence note, just sharing a short personal memory, if you have them, no matter how distant or trivial, can help the grieving person. The little stories add up to a lot.

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Very good point. Sometimes, though, I need to write a note to someone I met as an adult — I never knew their now-deceased parent. So I don’t have any stories to share.

  2. Tom Moore Says:

    As I am sure you know, and I hope you have not had so much experience of this yet at 53, it won’t be only the parents, but ourselves, and even those younger than ourselves.

  3. Mindy Says:

    Why not just a simple “I’m sorry to have heard about…” Please know you can call if you need anything or want to talk. I’m here for you.

  4. Lisa Says:

    I agree that a memory of the deceased, if possible (and appropriate!) is lovely- but absent that, I typically write- and have appreciated receiving- the following two lines: “I am sorry to hear of the loss of your _____. Please know that I am thinking of you in this difficult time.”

  5. Judith Says:

    Ilana,

    This is an issue I’ve thought a lot about. When my father died (I was in my early 30s), I was shocked to find how few people of my generation had a clue about what to say or do. Many of my friends awkwardly ignored my father’s death, as though if they didn’t mention it, I wouldn’t remember and feel sadness. Some asked inappropriately intrusive medical questions about his death, hoping, I think, either to find an excuse for his relatively early death (did he smoke? did he exercise?) or to find a reason to conclude that his death was a blessing (was he in a lot of pain?).

    I agree with you that trying to cheer up someone who is grieving is a bit insensitive.

    In contrast, I found that the formulaic responses of many older folks, even people I didn’t know well, were quite comforting. You don’t need to say much to express condolences. “I’m sorry for your loss.” “This must be very hard for you.” “I’m thinking of you in this difficult time,” as one of your friends suggested. Those all work really well. Cards and flowers say a lot with few words. When people knew my father, I really appreciated hearing that they remembered him, and that they appreciated his humor, wit and intelligence. It was great to hear anecdotes or recollections that brought him back in memory. For those who didn’t know him, they sometimes knew that I was close to him and admired him a lot, and hearing that recalled was very moving.

    I don’t think you need to walk on eggshells or worry about saying the wrong thing. But if you don’t know what to say, the old social graces usually work quite well.

    Judith

    • Ilana DeBare Says:

      Thank you Judith. It’s helpful to hear from your personal experience.

      My mom died when I was 28, and I don’t think any of my friends wrote condolence letters. I think I was probably too shell-shocked to notice one way or the other.

      I do know that Sam’s ability to listen sympathetically (we had just started dating) was one of the things that drew me to him.

  6. notdeaddinosaur Says:

    Funny you should write this right now: I learned last week of the death of a sister of a blogger friend (whom I’ve actually met in real life, including at the viewing of her mother a few months back), and have been meaning to write a note but have been stalling. Thanks for the nudge.

  7. Nicholas Says:

    I’m in complete agreement with Judith. It seems to me that the hardest thing about dealing with a major loss is how lonely it is. Just to know that your friends are aware of what you are going through makes the heartache a little easier to deal with. Letting them know you are available to talk is nice, but it’s also really important not to push yourself upon them.

  8. susie m Says:

    I’ve often stumbled over my pen/tongue when writing these notes, as well. The cards I got from friends when my father passed away suddenly last summer were touching and comforting, like some have already said above, just because I knew someone I cared about was thinking about me. I learned much from that.

    No matter how one feels/felt about the person, the loss of a parent is difficult and HUGE. I spent many hours in therapy over the years talking about my dad. Our relationship was challenging and unsatisfying for most of my life, but he was my dad and the only one I had, and by the time he died last year I had come to a certain peace about our relationship. I was surprised by how hard I took his death and how discombobulated I felt in the months following.

    The best support I got was from a friend who had lost both of her very difficult, negligent, alcoholic, and discontected parents in the past decade. She totally got that no matter what your relationship was like (loving or not) when you lose someone close to you in your family, it is devastating and you need to take care of yourself.

    I’m glad Sam was there for you when your mom died. He’s a wonderful listener and it makes sense you were drawn to him for that quality!

  9. Kaveh Says:

    Ilana, I liked the thoughtful (and funny) cross examination of the pat condolence sentences that you wrote about. (“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?”)

    I know I have struggled with and ducked this issue a few times in the past, waited too long after I heard about someone passing, until I felt it was too late to write.

    Death IS a profound subject, life altering to the core, strange (as life is, except it’s harder to ignore its strangeness), a source of multitude emotions that may vary is each bereaved person, and may vary from week to week, so it’s understandable, the need to pause and focus one’s thoughts in crafting words that hopefully bring comfort instead of chafe.

    Yes, Matisse is elegant in his letter (and very French, I say! though that’s probably partly a translation effect, and partly the period), but having received a perfectly good, brief condolence note from you some time ago (and you didn’t even know my dad), I say you are better at it than you think.

    I also liked Judith’s comments. Simple is good. I did appreciate anecdotes, as well as generic but heartfelt expressions. I even appreciated some less elegant attempts. Someone was trying, in their own way, to help me cope. How could I fault them for it?

  10. Carolyn Said Says:

    Ilana, thanks for your insightful thoughts on a topic that has come up for me many times, especially when writing condolence notes about the death of someone I’ve never met (usually the parents of my friends). When my dad died, a friend wrote this: “I can’t imagine that any other daughter could have given a father’s life more pleasure and pride than you did.”
    That beautiful sentiment touched and comforted me, and also succeeded in being personal without her having known my dad. Since then, when writing sympathy letters, I’ve tried to reach for similar thoughts that reflect the person I know (the bereaved) if I did not know the deceased.
    –Carolyn

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