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