In the Face of Death

            I usually try to keep my posts fairly light, but today I want to address a fairly serious topic: how to write letters that confront loss and sorrow. Condolence letters are rough to write and often rough to read. A friend of mine who lost a parent found she couldn’t even break the seal on most of the notes she received. But sympathy card and letters often do bring real comfort to the bereaved, sometimes not right away, but months or even years later. When I was seventeen, I went to visit my grandparents in New Jersey. I arrived the day a distant member of the family had his funeral, and that night I went with my grandparents to sit shiva with the family. During the course of the evening, one of my great uncles took me aside and told me (at great length) how, when his wife had died some years back, my mother had written him a long, beautiful letter about his wife. The letter, he told me, captured Aunt Bert’s spirit and described all her wonderful qualities so that he felt his wife was always close to him. The letter meant so much to him that he had it framed and hung it on his wall where he could see it every day.*

            As with any type of writing, knowing your audience and respecting the kind of relationship you have with the recipient of your note are key. When writing to a non-intimate acquaintance

(such as a co-worker) who is grieving, it’s usually best to come up with a version of “I’m sorry for your loss.” Anything more extensive than that is likely to feel like an intrusion.

 

Date

Dear Ms. Saunders,

            I was sorry to hear that your mother passed away. I remember meeting her once when she came by to have lunch with you. She seemed like a lovely person. Allow me to offer you my

Genuine sympathy,
Bob Milne

            What one might write should also depend on what one knows of the deceased. If you knew the deceased well, a memory or story that the family might like to keep can be a great gift. 

Date

Dear Rebecca,

            It is so hard to believe that Saul is not longer with us. He had such a calm and steadying personality. Remember that time we were all at the lake and the kids found the puppy with the broken leg? Sammy was howling louder than the dog, but Saul reassured him as he splinted the pup’s leg and wrapped the dog in a blanket. The whole way to the vet’s office Saul kept both kids and canine soothed with that low voice of his. And when no one claimed the dog, Saul just brought her back without thinking twice and made her part of the family. He did that for a lot of people too, including

Your friend,
Michal

Offer to help — but only if you really can follow through and if you won’t be hurt by a refusal.

          Sensitive condolence letters are often marked by what they don’t say. If you aren’t sure, don’t write that the deceased will be missed terribly. Unless you know the religious beliefs of the bereaved very well, don’t offer comfort out of your own faith. Avoid recounting the stories of your own losses; the letter should focus on the recipient’s pain. Especially when the loss is fresh, don’t pressure the mourner to find comfort. Anyone who has been loved deserves some pain and tears. Don’t add anything chatty; the note should be about the deceased or the loss to the reader only. Death is a time to be classy and formal, to lean on ritual and formulae. There are exceptions, of course, but unless you’re sure that deviating from the verbal rituals of grieving will be welcome, dress your letter in the accepted trappings of mourning.

           In the face of a death, I think of Emily Dickinson and her poem that I’ll let close this post:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go – **


Ruth

Ruth Feiertag is the owner of PenKnife Writing and Editorial Services (http://www.penknife-editing.net), the Senior Editor for Regal House Publishing (https://regalhousepublishing.com), and an independent scholar who writes about Medieval and Early Modern English Literature.      

   

(This one’s for my dad, d. 2007, but keenly missed and never forgotten.)                

————————————————

* When I got home, I told my mother this story and she burst out laughing. It turned out that when her mother died, my great-uncle had written her a letter that read,

Dear Sarah,
            I heard about your mother. Well, that’s life!

 

** https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47651/after-great-pain-a-formal-feeling-comes-372

 

21 thoughts on “[Wayback Repost] Why do letters seem more daunting than email?”

  1. Having been a letter writer for several years now, I don’t particularly find this challenge all that difficult, other than remembering to do it every day instead of when the whim takes me to write. And since I may not have a penpal’s letter to answer, then I need to think outside my normal circle of penpals and write to others. I saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with a few old penpals that had lapsed, family members that live outside of the city, friends I haven’t seen in a while, and strangers or persons of stature. I think it’s a great challenge and maybe it will even boost the joy of those who process all this mail and deliver it to us. 🙂

  2. I love your post. And I totally agree.

    Email, tweets n twitters, FB comments all have their place and moment in time where they are the appropriate way to respond.

    However, sending a letter, postcard, or notecard is the only way to connect with someone on a more personal, even intimate, level.

    The act of sending a missive does take time, but more importantly it takes thought. What paper will I use? What will I add (stickers, washi, etc.)? What will I say? Combined these choices will be a bright spot in someone’s day. Added bonus? It was created specifically for them.

  3. Great article on postcard apps but you should also take a look at Postsnap’s easy to use postcard app.
    http://www.postsnap.com
    https://itunes.apple.com/gb/app/postsnap-best-postcard-sending/id650814139?mt=8
    The app offers a number of unique features compared to the other apps reviewed including:
    – Guest checkout with Apple Pay
    – Extensive personalization options including collage layouts, stylish borders which can be adjusted in size with a slider and the option to add editable text in a variety of font types and colors and position it anywhere on the cards
    – iPhone and iPad support
    – Apple Pencil support
    – Facebook and Instagram integration
    – US postal address verification and UK postcode lookup
    Cards are printed and posted in our facilities in the UK, USA and Australia on the same or next working day and so cards typically arrive quickly. Enjoy!
    Stephen Homer
    Founder
    Postsnap

  4. I have been writing letters for several years now. My go to paper is Rhodia Premium or Rhodia Ice pads. I also Life pads too. I like them because they are not quite as slick as the Rhodia.

  5. I love Tomoe River paper for letter writing. I buy 100 sheets at a time and print my own mermaid stationery. I found an envelope that I like and ordered a mermaid address stamp and finish it off with mermaid washi tape.

  6. I too love journals to pull apart for writing. For me the most important aspect of the paper is the pattern. I love to have some colour and some design on the paper. I’ve managed to find a number of nice colours and designs at one of my local “Home Sense” discount stores in the book section. Most of the small journals are a perfect size to fit in the envelopes I use. If not I just give one edge a bit of a trim (but sometimes I really like the ripped edge look too!) ;P

  7. Hi, Christmas cards & more recently a letter (a bill) from the UK to Australia have taken 3 weeks to arrive. The exterior of these envelopes were stamped with a mark such as this from the latest envelope:
    DLC 992-4
    14:55
    26/07/2017
    The example quoted arrived at the Australian address on 28/07/2017, unfortunately it contained a bill dated 06/07/2017 which had to be paid within 14 days, by 20/07/2017.
    Why is the post so slow? What does the DLC 992-4 stamp signify? Would appreciate your feedback.

  8. My letter that I wrote was in September. The person who it was for still hasn’t gotten it and it’s now November….
    I don’t understand why it’s taking this long. I live in AZ and he lives in NY. I want answers.

Leave a Reply