Sunday, February 27, 2011

Finding the Words

Lately, it seems I've been signing an awful lot of sympathy cards. Deaths in families (my own and those of friends), a devastating miscarriage. And death brings with it plenty of opportunities for awkwardness. The awkward in-person, "I'm sorry."

And then there's the sympathy card or letter if you're trying to communicate the appropriate expression of grief to a friend or family member who is far away or if you're simply someone who is the card-giving type. The problem starts right from the moment you select the card, as noted in the above video by Lynn Harrison. Then comes writing in it.

I likely put more pressure on myself because I write for a living. But to be honest, in most cases, I have to keep emotions out of my professional writing.

If I'm writing a story for a publication, I'm being paid for an impartial, "just the facts, ma'am" account of events. As noted before in this blog, it's part of the reason I never had an interest in being a reporter on the daily city news sort of beat - sometimes keeping emotions in check, particularly when writing about death, can be a challenge. Passion can certainly drive a story, but emotion is supposed to remain locked out. Unless you're a columnist.

These days, my day job has me writing about software. No worries there about having to pour my heart out and feeling all weird and exposed.

But acknowledging someone's grief in a way that may help them for a moment feel some sort of peace? That's hard. And maybe it's not even the purpose of sending a sympathy card or note. Write too much and you're in danger of making it all about you. I distinctly remember the intense sorrow I felt when my mother-in-law died, the feeling of being cheated of getting to know her better, etc. And now you see? Yeah, that's all about me.

Write too little and how does it come off? "So sorry. Please let me know if I can do anything." Empty. Because any of us who have lost a loved one know that those who truly will drop their lives to "do anything" will simply do it, not say, "Tell me when." But what's the happy medium?

I googled "bad sympathy cards" and got a few links to sites that essentially give you fill-in-the-blanks suggestions for what to write. It seems wrong, but maybe this is one case where what you say doesn't really matter. Damned if I know.


  1. Nicely said. Keep in mind that most people in times of grieving are glad to have any kind of support at all, though.

  2. Good point, Bret. But you know how artists like to agonize over these sorts of things. Or maybe that's just a me thing...

  3. I too have been writing a lot of sympathy cards in the past year or so. You're absolutely spot on with this post - it is super hard to get the words right. But if I think too much I don't say anything. I put the card in a drawer. And I think it's better to say something than nothing. I usually default to "what would I want to hear, if it was me."

    You say "..intense sorrow I felt when my mother-in-law died, the feeling of being cheated of getting to know her better, etc. And now you see? Yeah, that's all about me"

    But it's not, it's about her. It's about how you wished you'd appreciated her / how you'll miss her / how you felt about her. If you can find a way to express that emotion about the person who has died, I think the person left behind will appreciate it. "She was so fascinating and loving, I am glad I had the chance to know her." That is a comfort. I would love to hear that about a loved one. Because all we have left is memories - the more the better.

  4. Thanks, cheesefairy. I have a tendency to over-analyze and be hard on myself.