You Have My Sympathy

I pulled another sympathy card from the post box today. It was from a dear friend in Iowa and her husband who hadn’t been able to attend my dad’s funeral in October. There is no statute of limitations on condolence cards it seems. At my father’s wake this past October, for example, one of the cousins handed me a card and memorial for my late husband who died nearly three years ago. So my friend’s card was not late, merely unexpected and oddly enough, timely.

Before heading to the gym for my aging lady’s interpretation of a workout, I shoe-horned in the week’s grocery shopping. Sympathy cards were on the list because my husband’s late wife’s father passed away over the weekend after a short battle with cancer. If his employer has been keeping score, and they probably are, this makes three fathers-in-law in the last 11 months. There have been five deaths in the family between us in the last 18 months, and it has become my job to shop for the condolence cards. Perhaps because I am the one with time enough on my hands to fit the task in but more likely because I am getting good at it.

It’s an odd thing to excel at and yet I find I have a talent for matching the Hallmark sentiment to the receiver of my empathy. Having been on the grief-stricken end of the stick, I am in a more cognizant position than I was years ago when I carelessly sent platitudes and untruths to people who knew so much more than I did about death and mourning.

When my first husband died, I received sympathy cards by the handsful. They let me know I was being prayed for or thought of in passing by people who hadn’t visited or even called once during his illness. For some reason, I didn’t find this gratifying. The cards spoke of peace and God and heaven, and how all these things were a comfort despite the fact that I knew there was nothing comfortable about losing your husband. But it was something that only I knew because I was in the thick of mourning, and they weren’t. So how could they know that I found only irony in their sympathy? Feelings that cost them a couple of bucks and postage and then were mailed away.

I don’t presume to say that condolence cards do not bring comfort at all. My mother found love and understanding in the many, many cards she received when my father died. She read them all, and with my aunt’s help replied to every single one with a speed that would make Miss Manners proud. But I felt presumed upon by the sympathy I received. Did they not know him? Or me? Had he known that all his family and friends had to offer his wife and child were empty words in place of deeds, he would’ve been angry.

So with my own experience in mind, I have become a careful connoisseur of condolences. I avoid all references to God or heaven unless I am 100% certain the recipient is of a religious bent. I don’t choose cards that imply I am praying because I am not. I avoid phrases like “time will heal the pain” or “your loved one is in a better place”. Time heals nothing. It merely passes. It has no healing powers and provides only the distance needed for the fogs to lift and the new landscape to be revealed. And I don’t know where your loved one is and therefore won’t be making any guesses or offering false assurances. For all I know the person was a rat bastard cooking over brimstone or that Buddha had it right and we all come back as household pets.

The condolence rack on this particular day offered a paltry selection. One card spoke of the “loss of a life well lived”, but Shelley’s dad had chosen to not live his life at all. An alcoholic who was mostly estranged from his family, the first time I had ever seen him sober was during his recent hospital stay. I’d met him three times previously – at funerals – and he reminded me of my own father during his heavy drinking days, weaving and red-faced.

Another card entreated the reader to recall with fondness the memories of the lost one and they would bring comfort. But I know that after a long illness the good memories are so overlaid with images of the last days and blotted out by the hardships of care-taking they almost seem to have been wiped away. Like an amnesiac, the grieving are trapped in the present or the last days and being reminded of memories that slip away like beads of mercury when they try to put a mental finger on them seems cruel.

There are no cards to remind the mourning of what a great job they did while caring for their dying. No cards telling them that everything will be alright and just breathe. Nothing to let them know that though I might not understand what they are going through I do know that it isn’t trivial and that they will be grieving for some time to come and that it’s okay. Nothing that acknowledges the anger. Nothing that says it’s really okay to cry in the grocery store or not answer the phone or that kids really will survive a diet of frozen foods longer than they think. And nothing to assure them that being strong is overrated as an asset.

So I stick to the plain and the mostly blank and I don’t offer to be on the other end of the phone anytime unless I really know I can and even then I know better than to urge the bereaved to call me if they need anything because I know they won’t. Because you don’t. It’s too much effort.

The whole cards and flowers thing is the least that can be offered when someone dies, a step down even from the food that will pile counters and stuff freezers and probably end up in the trash because six months after your spouse or parent or child dies do you really want to still be eating the soup your next door neighbor brought you?

I won’t pretend to have answers. As I told my mother recently,

“Just because I have lost a husband too don’t expect words of wisdom from me. All I can say is that I get it.”

And maybe that is all a sympathy card should do. Let the other person know that you know. There is comfort in numbers after all.

This was an original 50 Something Moms piece.

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