I wish I didn’t have so much experience on this subject. As I wrote in the Condolences story posted on the site in November 2012, our family received hundreds—maybe a thousand—cards and letters after our 24 year old son, Jimmy, was struck and killed by an automobile walking home in the early morning after a party in the summer of 2008. Since then I have lost my mother, my best friend and a 23 year old niece. My father-in-law died on my 61st birthday and other family members and good friends have lost spouses, siblings and parents. There has not been—nor will there ever be—a shortage of occasions to receive and express condolences, and probably nothing harder to write than a card or letter to someone who has lost a child.
Why is this so hard? The death of a child or young adult is just plain wrong—it’s beyond the natural order of things. It’s not supposed to happen, but it does. It’s frightening, disorienting and deeply unsettling for everyone caught in its wide wake. Many of the cards we received used the words “unthinkable” and “unimaginable.” It’s all of that and more. The pain and suffering of our family, our friends and Jimmy’s friends was palpable-like a writhing, ensnared, animal trapped in a deep shaft, denied all light—all air fit to breathe sucked out. The screams and wails of those who received my first calls soon after the Sheriff and Medical Examiner left our house will forever ring in my ears. The mask of shock and pain that instantly takes over the face of someone I’ve told for the first time “I lost my son” months and even years later, is never forgotten.
What can you possibly say or write to someone who has lost a child when you are dragged into your own nightmare just by thinking about it? ‘What if I lost one of my children or siblings?’ As I fessed-up in The Fraternity, I never said anything to my dentist after his seven year old son suffocated to death when a cave he’d been digging into a hillside in his backyard collapsed on him. I found a new dentist. It took me several years before I told my long-time physician how deeply sorry I was his son took his life—or that my father had taken his. It took the death of my own son for me to instigate that conversation.
I completely get how hard it is to write something. I’ll share some of what I wish I never learned and begin with some things to avoid.
- Don’t send an email or post on a Facebook wall. It reeks of being too easy and impersonal. Find a pen and write something. The handwritten word is very powerful—your energy and emotion is imbued to the paper through the pen. Although I vowed at the time to never re-read the cards and letters—it is nice to have something that can be held and revisited.
- Fight the urge to default to the clichés—“Words are inadequate” or “Words cannot express…” Words are all you have when you write a card so don’t admit defeat out of the chute. “I cannot imagine what you are going through;” “I can only imagine the pain.” If you haven’t lost a child you can’t—and shouldn’t— try to put yourself in their shoes— avoid stating the obvious.
- Avoid attempts to compare, rationalize or project. “Time heals all wounds.” Don’t try to make them feel better—you won’t—and in those very early stages after their loss you can’t. “I know he is in a better place.” First of all, are you absolutely positive about that?– and the obvious implication is that the recipient is in a worse place. In fact they are in the worst of all places—they are in hell— it is not helpful to remind them. “God had a plan for her and needed to bring her home.” Be careful injecting your personal belief system unless you know for certain the parent or sibling is on the same page— it’s another one of those ‘do you really have that level of first-hand knowledge?’ sort of things. The opening line of this card really jumped off the page for us. “I know the pain and suffering you are going through. Last month I had to put down my dog, Bippy, after 18 years.” What?! I know she didn’t mean the loss of a dog and a child are the same and I appreciate how people become deeply attached to and love their pets—and they too suffer when they lose them. I thought I hated my cats and yet, as I confessed in Princess Gantt, I bawled like a baby when I held 22 year old Princess in my arms as the vet put in the needle to stop her heart. I would avoid bringing up in a card any loss you have suffered. You are writing a sympathy card—not an empathy card. If you too have lost a child there are other ways you can be of great assistance. I will talk about that in another post.
- Don’t be too hasty. Your first instinct is to rush to the store, buy that card, scratch out a few words and get it in the mail the next day. We got an avalanche of envelopes within the first few days. The mailpersons certainly must know something bad has happened when they have to bring a box of mail to a doorstop because it won’t fit in the mailbox. We wanted to read them—we were compelled to read each one of them—and yet I’m sure some very lovely messages simply were lost in the crowd of sorrow. Some of the ones we received later, like the one from Chris Cox, really stood out and meant a great deal to us. It is also prudent to take your time with what you write and avoid the malaprops that unfortunately occur, particularly in the midst of an emotional hurricane. One of our young family members closed his note of condolence regarding Jimmy’s untimely death with “It couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy.” We knew what he meant to say. We actually got a good laugh from it—especially at a time we thought laughter was also forever taken away.
- To you men. This last Don’t is addressed to you guys. We are generally horrible at this sort of thing—expressing our feelings, showing our emotions, admitting our armor might have a chink. Don’t always have your wife or significant other write the card—no, a signature doesn’t cut it. We received precious few cards from the male species, and I can’t tell you how much it meant to me when we did.
“What can I write in a condolence card or letter?”
You are now probably saying “With all these don’ts, it’s safer to just get one of those Hallmark cards with the pre-printed message and sign it” OK, one more —don’t do that. This is your opportunity to rise above the chaos—to express your love and friendship when they really need you to do that—to make it personal. This is your time to write something beautiful. Trust me—you can do it. As a man I have always appreciated examples. Just so happens, from the hundreds I received, I am able to share some touching and powerful examples with you.
Examples of some effective and powerful condolence cards and letters
So, how do you write a condolence card that will stand out and be remembered? Let’s start by looking at the card my college fraternity brother Chris Cox wrote to us and we shared in Condolences. Forget for the moment the circumstances under which Chris wrote the letter and let’s examine the words and the structure.
Dear Casey and Hilary,
The news of Jimmy’s loss is heartbreaking. Please know that Rebecca and I are thinking of you, and that there is boundless love and prayer being offered for your family from this side of the continent, too.
Your quarter century with Jimmy is an incredible gift—I know you realize that, and will always be grateful for the way he served such a high purpose in life, including helping you both to grow and learn and to expand and absorb your capacity to love.
You have so much to be proud of in Jimmy’s life. And you have made me and all who know you proud, too, because we can see so much of you both in Jimmy’s many wonderful achievements, and in his character, and sense of humor. In this time of sorrow, mixed with gratitude for the sheer joy of Jimmy’s life, please know we are with you.
—Chris and Rebecca
The ingredients of a good condolence card or letter
What made Chris’s card special for us? I think it can be boiled down into these six things:
- Open strong with something from the heart. Chris hand-wrote his letter to us on his personal stationery. There was no pre-printed message. He began his card with “The news of Jimmy’s loss is heartbreaking…Rebecca and I are thinking of you and there is boundless love and prayer being offered for your family from this side of the continent.” He immediately started with an expression of his personal feelings about Jimmy’s death. Here are some openings from other cards we received: “Our hearts ache for you;” “We are devastated by Jimmy’s death.”
- Compliment the one who is gone- share a connection or memory you have with the child. “I know you… will always be grateful for the way he served such a high purpose in life…Jimmy’s wonderful achievements and his character and sense of humor.” Chris never met Jimmy and he likely based his observations on things he read or heard from others. Nevertheless, we appreciated his praise of our son. .” When we lost our son I thought everything he was or did left with him. By sharing a compliment or a memory you are helping the bereaved stay connected with their child.
- If you have a favorite memory of the child—an accomplishment, something funny he or she did—write about that. Share the connection you have with this person. “Jimmy was a student of mine in second grade and he always had has hand up first whenever I’d ask a question of the class—and he was almost always right!” “Jimmy and I played freshman football together at Torrey Pines High School. We were the smallest guys on the team, but nobody worked harder or tried harder than Jimmy. He was fearless.” If you don’t know the child, try and find something on-line about him—an obituary is a very good source of information—and write about something you found interesting or that stands out. “I read that Jimmy was an accomplished jazz saxophone player. I’ve played the clarinet all my life and Charlie Parker is one of my all-time favorites.”
- Compliment the parents or siblings. “You have made me and all who know you proud, too, because we can see so much of you both in Jimmy’s many wonderful achievements.” The parents need support and praise in addition to your sympathy. This was from a letter one of my law partners wrote to me. “Casey, you are the most talented lawyer I know and it is no surprise that Jimmy excelled with his writing and acting. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree.” I know he didn’t mean that—he’s always thought he is a better lawyer—but it was still nice that he said it. [smile] If you know the parents well, express your love and friendship for them—share a moment or a memory—connect to them. You need to appreciate, even though you can’t really understand, how lost and disconnected the parents and the siblings are. The world as they knew it has changed-instantly-drastically. They are a ship without sail tossed in a tumultuous sea. They have lost more than a child—they lost their bearings, their direction—they no longer recognize the road before them. They are desperate for a hand—and a handhold. Reach out and grab them! “We’ve been friends for over 40 years. You were my best man and I stood up next to you at your wedding. We’ve laughed and cried together many times. The well of our friendship is deep and it will never run dry.” If you are a good friend or family you will do more than write a letter. You will call them, go see them, walk with them and pray with them—and you will do this over and over. We’ll talk about this in later posts.
- Say something uplifting. Chris wrote “Your quarter century with Jimmy is an incredible gift. You will always be grateful for…[him] helping you both to grow and learn and expand and absorb your capacity to love. … In this time of sorrow, mixed with gratitude for the sheer joy of Jimmy’s life, please know we are with you.” The parents and siblings are drowning in sorrow and they need to be reminded there is more out there than darkness—even if they may not believe it when they read it. The sheer joy of Jimmy’s life! Jimmy’s life and ours with him was full of joy. It was brilliant of Chris to remind us of that. Note that Chris didn’t speculate on where Jimmy might be—he’s in a better place—or where we might be—time heals all wounds. He made us focus on the moment—our moments with Jimmy—the things we know.
- Take your time. Chris obviously spent time thinking about what he wanted to say to us. He concisely conveyed many thoughts and feelings and the labor of his writing was endearing and so impactful. That he wrote his letter while on the front lines battling this country’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression put this card in the stratosphere!
We received this card from our very good friends Diane and Greg— Diane wrote the card. I think what really stood out for us was what a powerful and thoughtful writer Diane is. We didn’t know she possessed this talent and were so taken with her eloquence and beautiful phrasing. We now see and think of her differently and with deeper regard and respect.
Dear Casey, Hilary, Brittany and Ryan
There are never enough words to express our sorrow and the pain we share with you. We’ve been close friends for over 30 years and we will be here to support, comfort and love you now and forever. The memorial to Jimmy’s life was filled with so much emotion. His very close friends who delivered remembrances gave us a glimpse into Jimmy’s wonderful character, spirit and accomplishments. He brought such joy to everyone.
Greg and I loved speaking at length to Jimmy at Brittany and Ryan’s wedding and now are so grateful to have spent those moments with him. Jimmy’s words as illustrated in his plays and letters were astonishingly beautiful. He was an extraordinary son, brother and friend to all. We love you.
—Greg and Diane
Diane’s card included the same six main ingredients of the card from Chris. She spoke from the heart-“the sorrow and the pain we share with you,” and when she wrote “we love you” we knew she meant it. They complimented and shared a memory with Jimmy— the connection they made with Jimmy at the wedding, his wonderful character and his beautiful writings. She spoke of their connection with us-the parents- “We’ve been friends for over 30 years and we will…love you forever,” and included something uplifting—“He brought such joy to everyone.” She clearly took her time and wrote the card a few days after the memorial service for Jimmy. OK, she did open with there are never enough words to express…, but I still give this card an “A.” [another smile]
I also like that Diane addressed her letter to Jimmy’s sister, Brittany, and his brother-in-law of less than a year, Ryan Kirby. Their pain and suffering was no less than ours. If you know the siblings in addition to the parents, I would think about writing a separate card or letter to them.
This card was from a client of mine. Ron and his son, Ernie, were at Jimmy’s memorial service. I clearly remember hugging them both. Jimmy and Ernie met a couple of times and Jimmy looked up to Ernie, fifteen years his senior. Ron wrote his card in a very painstaking, deliberate hand—also on personal stationery— obvious he spent some time with it. And it was written by a guy!!
Dear Casey and Hilary
The three days since the memorial service have been sobering and uplifting for me. I never met or knew Jimmy, but after the service I felt I had known him forever. If a man is to be judged by his friends and family, Jimmy is to be judged at the highest level.
What a remarkable and talented son you raised. I can understand how emotional and painful that 1 ½ hours was for you both. You however honored him exceptionally. Regardless of his religious preferences, Jimmy was obviously outwardly and inwardly spiritual.
The shadow cast by his parents certainly allowed him to shine brightly in his world. Good for you both to have raised Jimmy to be his own man and yet so remarkably like his parents.
Although this is certainly a life changing experience for you both, I know you will continue to be exceptionally fine people that you are.
We both hurt greatly for your loss. Love and Peace to you both.
—Ron and Linda
Ron spoke from the heart; he complimented Jimmy and we parents. He wrote of the connection-the bond-between us parents and our son, and he included something uplifting “Jimmy was obviously…spiritual” and “I know you will continue to be exceptionally fine people that you are.” Seeing Ron and Ernie—father and only son—at the service spoke volumes, and yet I never expected to receive a card like his. I’d known Ron for years in primarily the business world. He was smart, sophisticated and successful. I did not know the depth of Ron. He surprised me and wrote something beautiful.
You too can write a powerful condolence card to someone who has lost a child if you follow these six suggestions:
- Open strong and say something from your heart.
- Compliment the one who is gone.
- Share a favorite memory or connection with the child.
- Compliment the parents (or the siblings).
- Say something uplifting.
- Take your time.
Write something beautiful—surprise someone.
P.S. I tried to compose a card of what I would have written to us after Jimmy died were I family friend. I am not yet in a place where I can do that. It’s hard. I get that.
If I have helped you in this time of stress and tribulation, I encourage you to leave me a comment here that I can publish with this post. It would mean a lot to me and countless others in our common circumstance.