How to write a beautiful condolence card to someone who has lost a loved one to suicide
By Casey Gauntt
Unfortunately I also have personal experience with this most challenging task. When I was twenty years old my father, Grover Cleveland Gauntt, Jr., the strongest man I knew, took his life sometime in the evening of December 21, 1970— the Winter Solstice. Some think of that as the shortest day of the year. We believe that was the longest night for our father. He fired into his head a bullet from a .38 caliber pistol he had purchased two days earlier from a gun shop in Chicago. We thought he was in Panama on business. It was only after my 24 year old son, Jimmy Gauntt, was struck and killed by an automobile in August of 2008 walking home from a party—he was too intoxicated to drive—that I came to grips with my father’s suicide. It was my son’s death that made me finally confront my father’s demise—a death I had run from as far and fast as I possibly could for over 38 years. I was stone-cold stopped in my tracks, spun around and confronted face to face with my dad who showed up to pull me back from the precipice of my grief. I cannot adequately express the enormity of this reconnection with my father. The story of this incredible visit from the other side is told in Steve Date’s ten minute film [click on it] The Letter posted on this website upon which you have landed.
As I wrote in How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Card To Someone Who Has Lost A Child, we received hundreds, maybe a thousand, condolence cards after Jimmy’s death. A steady stream of family, our friends, friends of Jimmy, flower and food deliveries poured through our house in Solana Beach, California that first week. A thousand sorrowful souls attended his memorial service on the University of California campus in San Diego.
The aftermath of my father’s suicide could not have been more different. A few family members flew in from California. A handful of friends came by the house. About twenty-five folks attended his memorial service held at the Itasca Presbyterian Church on Christmas Eve day. Maybe two pews full. There were no photos of my father, no casket. Reverend Hinkin was the only one who spoke. The family went back to our house, we men huddled around a table in our kitchen and drank scotch. There was no wake, no celebration of life. My father’s death was not feted.
On Christmas day my mother handed me an envelope addressed to me. “This came in the mail yesterday.” The envelope was postmarked December 21 in Roselle, Illinois, where my dad’s office was located. I pulled out the letter. Three hundred-dollar bills fell from the missive written in my father’s hand. His customary steady cursive scrawled untidily across the paper. Two lines: Casey—I sold some of your Hecla Mining shares. Please buy something for your mother and Laura. Those were my father’s last words to us—to me. His suicide note. I gave the money to my mother and threw the note away.
Suicide makes strangers of neighbors and friends. Family, too. Suicide is crushing, unthinkable, unfathomable and frightening. What can you say? What can you do when your initial instinct is to just run? The question—implied and explicit—why? Why did this happen? Isn’t there something more you could have done? The fear of those around me—the sheer fact everyone was so immobilized by the shock of his suicide—compounded the fear and anger that welled up in me. I went back to college at USC after the “holidays” and told only two fraternity brothers what really happened to my dad. To everyone else I lied “He had a heart attack.”
All this is to emphasize the point that, when someone you know loses a loved one to suicide this will not only be the hardest condolence card you write—it will be the most important. In How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Card To Someone Who Has Lost A Child, I included several “Don’ts.” Let me add a few more:
Don’t run away. Suppress every instinct to the contrary and run to the side of your friend or loved one. Truly one of the most helpful things you can do is show up with a card, other remembrance or, better yet, a personal visit and a hug.
Don’t treat this death differently. The fact is whether the person was struck by a car at age 24, succumbed from a long illness at the age of 90 (my dear mother) or took his life at 51, he or she is dead and has begun the next leg of the journey. They have moved on. How you approach a suicide with your friend or loved one will play a role in how they move on with their life. If you feed the victim aura-either with the words you use or by saying nothing at all—this may stunt the healing process. Your friend or loved one is most certainly deeply feeling the pain and trauma as a victim from the suicide. Don’t compound that.
In my previous post on the loss of a child, I suggested the following six ingredients to a beautiful condolence card. Those equally apply to a death by suicide.
- Open strong and say something from your heart.
- Compliment the one who is gone.
- Share a favorite memory or connection with the person who has passed.
- Compliment your friend or loved one who has suffered the loss.
- Say something uplifting.
- Take your time with the words you choose.
In How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Card To Someone Who Has Lost A Child I also included some examples of beautiful cards we received after we lost our Jimmy. The ingredients of a beautiful, meaningful, condolence card when the death is by suicide are the same and I will not repeat them here.
Although I admitted in that post I cannot yet compose a card I would have written to myself after Jimmy’s death, enough time has elapsed since my father’s demise. Here is a letter I have written from the shoes of my father’s friend, the late Jim Walton.
I am heartbroken over the sudden and tragic loss of your father. Your dad was my best friend. We served together as officers in the Army during World War II including two years in the South Pacific. He saved my life on more than one occasion, and I did the same for him. Grover is one of the bravest and most courageous men I know. At the end of the war we were stuck in Manila and forced to type up summaries of the many battles our Division participated in. We finally had enough and took our typewriters and threw them into the ocean. We told our commanding officer they were stolen by locals. As you know, I worked with your dad for many years at Case Foundation Company where he continued to display his exceptional leadership and organizational skills. He taught me a lot. Your dad loved you very much. He was always so proud and bragged to everyone of how well you have done in school and sports and the work ethic you exhibited at such an early age working all those summers at Case. I so enjoyed having the opportunity to be your supervisor that summer we worked on the ventilation shaft project for Olga Coal Company in Coalwood, West Virginia after you graduated from high school. You worked hard and fit in so well with the folks there. All of the exceptional qualities I observed in your dad have been passed on to you. You are destined to be successful and a good father when that time comes for you. I regret not being able to attend your dad’s service, but I am flying to Los Angeles next week and look forward to our dinner together. Please accept my deepest condolences, Casey.
Jim didn’t come to my dad’s funeral. Neither did he send a card or come see me in Los Angeles. The fact is I never saw Jim Walton again after my summer in Coalwood. But I know, in my heart, he would have written those words to me if only he could have stopped running.
Here is a link to our story One Suitcase which includes a video of me talking about the long hard road my family travelled to healing from my father’s suicide. One Suitcase