When my husband died, I got a lot of sympathy cards, and every single one of them meant something to me. For weeks I let unopened mail pile up on the dining table, making an exception only for cards in hand-lettered envelopes. Those I read eagerly.
I loved the cards from people who had known my husband; knowing he would be missed seemed like validation of the heartbreak I felt. I loved equally the cards from people who hadn’t known my husband; the acknowledgment of my pain made me feel seen.
Many nights I sat on the floor with the pile of cards I’d received and read them, sobbing but feeling the embrace of all the people who had sent the cards. I still do this occasionally, nearly two years after he died.
Before my husband died, I sometimes wondered if I should send a sympathy card to someone. I wondered if I knew the person who died or the person who was grieving well enough to say anything of value. Now that I’ve been on the receiving side of those cards, I know that the answer is always YES.
If you are putting off sending a sympathy card because you don’t have time to get to the store, don’t go to the store—just write your condolences on notebook paper or a scrap of something. Really. The card doesn’t matter—your thoughts do. Some people sent cards that I’m sure they put a lot of thought into choosing, cards that featured Bible verses or a saying that they probably imagined would comfort me. The truth is, I almost never read any of the pre-printed messages. I did this for several reasons:
- Lack of interest in truisms about loss and grief. The genre of sympathy card is not terribly original, and I wasn’t interested in cliches telling me that loss is hard or that death is a part of life. Duh. I knew that. I didn’t need the Hallmark Company to give me that information. As soon as I saw fancy embossed script lettering, my eyes glazed over.
- Impatience to read the handwritten, personalized part. My interest was solely in the thought the sender was sharing with me.
- Lack of contrast. On a practical level, many cards featured pale lettering on a white background or white lettering on a light background, which I can’t see.
The card itself doesn’t matter. Which means you should write something, not just sign it and stick it in the mail. (Although, frankly, those cards were nice to get, too, so if all you can muster is a signature, I’d say go ahead and send it.)
What to write?
My favorites were the cards that included stories about my late husband—little anecdotes about him saying something funny, doing something outrageous, wearing something silly. People told me what they would most remember about him or what they would most miss. Some people tucked longer handwritten notes into the cards they sent because they had so many stories to share. A few people included photocopies of poems they thought I would appreciate.
Grief is overwhelming and blurry. The cards that included something specific about my late husband made the blurriness disappear for a moment. I could focus briefly on the particular memory or quality they shared. A note that mentioned the canoe Tom built himself made me remember the canoe in our garage, Tom deciding to sell it, and then deciding to give it away to a man with a son who would appreciate it enough that Tom no longer cared about the money. A note that mentioned the colored lights in Tom’s garage workshop briefly transported me to the time I woke up in the middle of the night and Tom wasn’t in bed. I couldn’t find him in the house, so I went out to the garage, where I found him tinkering with a motorcycle as the lights shifted from blue to green to purple.
The next time you need to send a sympathy card, consider mentioning
- what you will most remember about the person who died. Maybe it’s a quality of theirs, a particular outfit, a memorable catch phrase. Perhaps they taught you something or recommended a book to you that made a difference.
- what you will most miss about the person. Even something tiny is worth mentioning: seeing them every evening when you walk your dog, hearing them trigger their car alarm every Monday morning.
- a brief anecdote. This only needs to be a sentence or two. You can just say, “I’ll never forget the time . . .” It doesn’t have to be detailed.
If you didn’t know the person who died, talk about what you know from the person you are writing to. In the cards I got, people said things like “I remember you talking about your epic motorcycle trips with Tom” and “I remember noticing the photo of the two of you together in the snow on your desk.”
Consider what is most likely to comfort the person you are sending the card to. This may be something other than what would comfort you. If you are very religious but the person receiving the card is not, a non-religious card may resonate better and actually provide more comfort, and vice versa.
Stay focused on the purpose: to make them feel less alone. You don’t have to “fix” anything for them, make them laugh, or write the best card every written. Even the cards I got that had nothing but a signature made me feel loved.
Phrases to avoid:
- Any sentence that begins with “at least,” such as “at least he’s no longer in pain” or “at least she’s now with [her dog that died last year].” These words minimize the pain your recipient is feeling, whether than is your intention or not. You can say “I’m glad he’s no longer in pain” or “I imagine her playing with [her dog that died last year].” Do you see the difference the phrasing makes?
- “Let me know what I can do.” This seems helpful, but in actuality it puts one more burden on the recipient—now on top of grieving, they have to be a project manager. For better ideas about how to offer help, read my post.
- “I can’t imagine.” Sure you can, and saying you can’t puts distance between the recipient and you. The point is to close the distance not increase it.
Finally, I’m not a fan of wishing people strength when they are grieving.