The Sympathy Note

Write it. Do it now. Don’t put it off, but even if you have put it off, go do it now. I promise that the widow still will be thrilled to know someone still cares. It doesn’t matter how far away from the death it is. It’s never too late.

I received hundreds of notes and each and every one meant something to me. I read them over and over. I kept them in a basket in the living room and often went through them. It honestly let me know I was not alone, there was a lot of love out there and I was well cared for. It’s hard to see that when you’re in the depth of grief.

[Sotto voce to the widows: try to respond with a thanks at some point to those who sent something to you. I hope I remembered to thank everyone. It really did mean a lot to me.]

E-mail is fine, but follow up with snail mail. That really matters. Whatever you send will do. A Hallmark card with your signature is OK if you can’t think of anything to write. It’s okay, really.

Limit to sympathy. Follow up with chipper news in another letter (which ends up also being a nice way to keep in touch with your newly widowed friend). And please, do not try to assuage guilty feelings about the dearly departed. It doesn’t help you, it doesn’t help the widow and it doesn’t help the dead guy. Let it go or if you must get absolution, wait and bring it up later. Much later. Or not at all. Face it, the dead guy won on this one. You’d be surprised how many people tried to seek absolution from me concerning something they felt guilty about with John. I’m here to tell you, he’d long ago forgotten about it. And if he hadn’t, well honestly, it’s too late. He’s dead. Forgive yourself and move on.

It is hard to know what to say while writing the note. I do understand that. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, the three best sympathy notes I received were from young men, all under the age of 21. My best friend’s son wrote a beautiful note and closed with the line, “I look forward to spending time with you when we can share more stories about John together.” How lovely. He promised me a future that didn’t forget the past.

Another dear friend’s son wrote long, funny anecdotes about things John had taught him, “You can grill fruit and still be a man” and “Always hold a woman and champagne bottle the same way—never by the neck”. Sweet funny reminders that John had an impact on other peoples lives, in ways he probably never knew.

My young nephew wrote perhaps the best sympathy note. I am quoting pretty much verbatim here:

“Dear Aunt Andrea, How are you? I am fine. I am playing baseball in school and am on the team. I love to swim and go fishing. It is very hot down here. I am sorry your husband died. Love. J.”

Perfection. I should have framed it. Now go write that note. Or write another one. It’s not too late.

Born in 1961. Married in 1990. Widowed in 2007. Blogging in 2009.

3 comments On The Sympathy Note

  • I found your blog today looking for a comforting message to send to an acquaintance who just lost his wife last week to breast cancer. He and his wife knew my recently deceased husband (6/28/10), Bob thru business. When Bob had cancer the first time in 1988 in his travels to their business, they were always supportive of Bob and what he was dealing with. When I think of Butch and Janey, they were always a comfort to Bob, I’m just trying to word these thoughts to Butch to let him know to comfort himself in his grief as he comforted Bob in his cancer.

    Your husband, John, sounds alot like my husband, Bob, in that he never thought of himself as being sick, we always thought he could fight thru all of the illnesses that he was handed, so that when he died I am struggling with this loss. I do have lots of support and I am just putting one foot in front of the other as I walk away from our life as a couple to my new life as me.

    Thank you for your incitefulness and kind words that you have shared on this site, they were a comfort to me today. I know I am rambling but I think that is part of the process of grieving. My warmest regards to you.

  • Well said.

  • I was struggling to know what to write to a young widow (only had 8 months together as man and wife) this gave me the courage to write something rather than nothing x

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One more thing…

How else do I know what hurts and what helps? Because not only were they done to me… I learned through this process that I am certain to have done the very same "Don't" things to others at some point along the way. If you're one of them, I am genuinely sorry. I'm trying to learn.