Grief: Writing Back. #Sympathy Cards, #Condolences, #Etiquette


I am about to take pen to paper, in a literal sense and finally respond to all the people who’ve expressed their sympathies to me when Mom died in September.

that's a lot of writing. i'm glad i read about who gets a note back or i'd be here for weeks.

two stacks. that’s a lot of writing. i’m glad i read about when to send a reply or i’d be here for weeks.


I have avoided this task because I’m basically not quite sure I understand it. I started a post back in November (which I didn’t share) about my appreciation for the symbolism of the sympathy cards, but my general dislike of having to return the sentiment in some form of acknowledgement. I can hear my grandmother saying, “Send those notes, Molly…” and I can also hear my mother say, “Why bother? People know you know they sent the note… who is this for? Them?”


It’s like this to me: “You sent me a note to tell me you’re sad for my loss and that you know I’m sad. Thank you. Now I will send you a note back to tell you I appreciate that you knew I was sad and that I’m grateful you were co-sad with me or aware of my sadness. Here’s me seeing you seeing me.” It’s Avatar to the Nth degree.

I’m sure I’m supposed to reply in a year. I haven’t even bothered to check in with Emily Post about it. But Grandma wins and I’m about to start the notes. I’ll check in with you when I’ve finished the task. I started this post on Friday, June 6, 2014. I expect I’ll wrap it up sometime around September 2016.

Not so fast…

Well, shit.

I wish I’d checked in with the internet first.

Real Simple magazine says send them, but if you’re too devastated, don’t because real sympathy means your loved ones understand: “True sympathy means respecting the grieving process, selflessly and without expectation.” (who knows what that is) says if you get a (just a) card (in absence of flowers, etc), then you don’t need to send a card because you wouldn’t send a card back for just a birthday card. Snarky MetaFilter. says: “There is no official time frame, but within two-three weeks of the funeral or memorial service is appropriate.

You don’t need to send a formal thank you note to everyone who attended the funeral/visitation or sent you a sympathy card. Instead, a thank you note or acknowledgement should be sent to anyone who has done something extra, including:

    • Pallbearers or people who have sent or brought flowers, donations, food, support, etc.”

Then it goes on to say this, “So the funeral of your loved one was over a month ago (or several months, or even a year or more). You forgot to send thank you notes, or you just didn’t have the heart to do it at the time. Now you’re feeling better, and you’re wondering: Is it too late?”

While “… it’s never too late; you will need to acknowledge the delay in sending the note. For example, preface your thank you with something like this: ‘I’m sorry it took me so long, but I do want to thank you for your kindness…’ Or, ‘My apologies for the delay in sending this, but your gift of flowers for Joe’s funeral service was lovely, and I wanted to thank you…'”

So that helps. I’ll go with FuneralWise. I’ve sent sympathy cards to people and sometimes I received replies and sometimes I didn’t. I never kept score. People go out of their minds when someone dies; the last thing they need to worry about is offending someone who’s offered emotional support.

It also helps me remember at this point, now nine months later, how thoughtful people were when it all went down. When I was 15, our next door neighbor suffered a horrible loss of her live-in grandchild who was ejected from a car in an accident. Less than a year before, my younger cousin also died in a vehicle-related accident and the whole thing was BRUTAL. His parents were experiencing marital discord in the months preceding his death and so his accident ripped everyone apart.

For my neighbor, whom I barely knew, I made a huge tuna casserole as some form of outreach. I didn’t ask, I just showed up with the food and walked away. I remembered how raw we all were at my cousin’s funeral and then reception, so I knew that family was suffering. Eating, much less cooking is the last thing on your mind.

Back to 2013. We had a small, impromptu gathering at my house here in Virginia the day after Mom died. My in-laws, some sibs-in-law and close high school and college friends came by to see my brothers who’d also swooped in to cocoon, hunker down, help Dad deal, and start strategizing logistics for the Mass and funeral ceremonies.

It’s all coming back to me now, which is a good thing.

The day Mom died, Labor Day, was the day before school started here. The night she died, Dad spent the night with my younger brother, his pregnant wife and their two little kids. The next day, I got up (I’m not sure I slept), took my kids to school, put on a brave face and operated on autopilot. My husband took the day off from work; my older brother flew in from NYC and arrived on an 11am shuttle. We went to lunch at a Thai place near my home almost immediately after dropping off his luggage.

I remember it clearly now: my husband and I picked him up at the airport, and he dumped his bags in my SUV’s “wayback” (as I used to call it when I was a kid) and we drove home. I want to say we were all quiet in the car. But I also want to say, we all, the three of us talked about Mom, talked about how surreal and crazy it all was, and then I want to say we listened to the Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin.

When we pulled up to the house, we parked and my brother took his bags to our guest room, washed his face and then plopped himself on one of our leather chairs. He sighed, ran his hands through his hair a couple times and said, “Screw it. I’m hungry. You hungry? Let’s get some lunch. My treat.”

We got back in the car, drove a few miles away and each ordered lunch. More “what the hell” and “Mom’s dead…” “How’s Dad? This is so crazy…” stuff at the table. It probably was one of the coolest times I’ve ever had with my brother as we’ve become adults. It was very real and vulnerable and safe. All bets were off and we could say anything we wanted, no judgement. The only rule was no rules.

That heavily lacquered table in the strip mall Thai restaurant with the useless polyester napkins which don’t ever absorb, and its Zen-inspired Asian piano & wind chime music was the birthplace of, “We’re all a little crazy, Mol.”

We each had a Corona and a lime. Talked and talked for about two hours. Then we shared one more Corona and got back in the car. We drove back to our house and then friends started to show up, just … out of the blue. They knew what had happened, but we didn’t make any plans, they just knew we’d be home and likely zombie idiots who’d forgotten how to feed ourselves. They descended with love and reality as if to say, “We are coming to support you and we don’t really care what you say…” CaraLeigh, Donna, Jeff, John, Scott, Matt, Tom, Jill, Tom, Laurie … It was very life-fulfilling and it gave me hope. I cleaned the kitchen. Barely sat down. Couldn’t really sit still. Food from Kelly, Rebecca, Donna and Jill was so loving. We’ve gone back to eating cereal…

The weather today is very similar to the weather that day. And I’m outside, just like I was that day when Dad called to tell me Mom fell down and that the EMTs told him she likely had a cardiac arrest and that she was on transport to the hospital.

Crap. Now I’m remembering how I fell apart in my brother’s best friends’ arms when I saw him. I just … completely lost it. There’s something about this guy: I’ve known him since I was 15 and he knew Mom so well; on a lark they took a couple community college classes together; I’m so glad she had him to hang out with because things were so hard for me with her. Anyway, seeing him pretty much undid me. Memories are strong; I was late to picking up Thing 3 just now because I was swept back up in those heady posthumous days.

So those are the people who will get the notes. It’s good and it will be good for me to send them now. Immediately after Mom died, was school, then my birthday, grief and more grief. Then Thing 3’s birthday and Thanksgiving, then Christmas, then Thing 2’s birthday, then Charlie, then our frigid winter and yoga certification, and then yoga teaching and more grief. The pressure, quite frankly, to write any note has been hard for me. I simply couldn’t wrap my arms around the point of it. But now I see the point of it, and it’s good.

Thank you.

3 responses »

  1. I do hope that writing that down has helped, even if you end up deleting it some time down the line. The thing is, you got it out. You said what you felt. It may have been September, but it will still be raw for you. Where I cannot directly associate with what you have been going through, when I was married, my ex’s nan was basically her mother so when she died, I know where you are coming from albeit a lesser degree.

    I am glad that you have decided on the people which will receive the cards. 98% of people who send Sympathy cards do not expect a note back, in fact I didn’t even know there was some sort of custom for it. Those nearest and dearest to you in those initial hours, the ones who dropped everything and ran to you. They are special people, and you are extremely lucky to have people like them in your life.

  2. I hope the note writing went well, is still going well, and/or does not last until 2016. I think the fact that you are doing it at all seems like a feat. You are right – it’s very Avatar-y.

    • i wrote four. four to the four people who brought me food. i willl write a few more to the people who came by and showed us love, unflinching, unfailing, unselfish and strong love. it was a horrible time and yet a completely wonderful time (don’t wince!) because it showed me what i’ve always believed about death, “that we think of the living. the dead are at peace.” xo

Whatcha Think, Smahtypants?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s