This past spring, as I’ve spoken about, my brother-in-law Paul died of lung cancer. My sister, Lucy, was flooded with condolence cards and flowers. “I loved every single card,” she said, “Just getting a card felt so good.” Yet a few things stuck out as especially touching. We spoke on the phone this week, and she shared what she has learned…
Snail mail a card. Every email, phone call, everything was wonderful; I was astounded by how kind people were. Physical cards were especially nice to hold onto. I didn’t care at all what the card looked like. I have them in a basket in our living room and see them every day.
Describe how you can help. I was so grateful when people said, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” But when people offered specifics, it felt even easier for me to take them up on their offers. One friend wrote, “If you ever want to come over, we can grill and make grapefruit mojitos; we’d love to see you and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for you.”
Tell stories. I loved when people wrote specific stories about Paul that I’d never heard, and told me how he had impacted them, what they loved about him, positive things they observed about our relationship. I personally think, the more detail, the better. The grieving person is thinking about the person 100% of the time; nothing you say is going to make her sadder; instead, the stories you tell are going to make her feel connected.
Literally nothing is too cheesy to write. Whatever emotion you’re feeling, it’s probably helpful to say. My friend Kimmy, who lives in Sweden, wrote, “I’m sending you love from across the ocean, as you swim through yours.” Another friend wrote: “When your grief feels dark and bottomless, know that we are here to reflect Paul’s light and love back to you, whether it’s next month, next year or in ten years.” If there is something that you think sounds pretty, go for it. They aren’t analyzing what you say — they just feel so raw.
And there is nothing too great you can say about the person. One friend wrote, “I last saw you both at a friend’s wedding; you were gorgeous, and Paul was strong, confident and deeply happy. The awe I felt for him, you, both of you was astounding, and it has only ever grown.” I was blown away. You’re so starved for remembering and thinking you’ve lost something so great, when you hear something positive, it’s affirming and validating. You realize that people get what he meant to you. They understand, they think it’s important too. Your love is not lost in the world.
Of course, you don’t have to be sentimental. One friend wrote, “THIS SUCKS,” and that felt great, too.
Consider involving kids. I liked when kids drew a picture of Paul and me. Sometimes they drew a random picture and that was sweet, too. One note said, “Dear Lucy, You’re sad. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I said a prayer for you last night. I’m Molly’s son. Love, Finn.” And then he drew a four-leaf clover. One girl wrote “Sick, Happy, Dr. Paul” and then crossed out the word sick. That was before he died. Her mom was like, I guess she decided she didn’t want him to be sick! It felt so poignant.
A drawing from a friend’s daughter. “VM” stands for “very much.”
Say you’ll never forget him or her. I like hearing that people will miss him. Someone sent me flowers and said, “Thinking of you; we miss Paul dearly,” and that meant a lot. A nurse who worked with him wrote, “We cherish the moments we spent with Paul in the operating room; he will never be forgotten.” Even though she’s a stranger to me, it’s really comforting to know that a nurse out there will never forget him either.
Write, even if you’re an acquaintance. A couple of people I didn’t know well still wrote to me (old friends of Paul’s, or the artist who illustrated Paul’s New York Times essay). It meant so much. You don’t have to be a close friend to write.
Reach out anytime. A few friends texted or sent flowers on the one-month anniversary of his death. Others sent a note a couple months later. They said, “We’re thinking of you,” and that was nice. You are not better two months later. I can imagine it would feel good to receive flowers six months later, a year later.
A photo of Lucy and Paul last Christmas.
Thank you so much, Lucy.
I hope this is helpful. Recently I came across this beautiful quote: “When a person is bereaved, the simple, sincere expressions of sympathy you write are deeply felt and appreciated. At this time of withdrawal from the world, your letter can be a warm and understanding handclasp.”
Lots of love to you all. xoxo
P.S. A trick to life, and the power of empathy.
(Top photo by Our Food Stories.)