[READER NOTE: If you want to go right to the letter-writing part, scroll down to THE SIX INGREDIENTS TO A BEAUTIFUL CONDOLENCE LETTER, and then the sample letters at the end of the Post. Casey]
Let’s first hit the “Why”
I don’t need to tell you the Covid 19 Pandemic is unlike anything our present generations have ever experienced. The world-wide loss of life, jobs, financial and emotional security and hope is daunting. The numbers in the United States alone are mind-bending: As of May 28, 100,000 have died; 42 Million people are out of work; and over 25% of Americans cannot afford to pay rent or buy enough food.
A recent federal survey chillingly discovered one-third of American adults have clinical signs of depression and anxiety. Although we should not be surprised seventy million of us are struggling with mental health, the magnitude is deeply troubling.
New York Times journalist Lisa Lerer, in her May 28 article MOURNING ALONE, has identified another related, looming crisis that has already affected millions of people in this country.
|Beyond their sheer size [over 100,000 dead], what has been most striking about these staggering numbers has been the silence.|
|America has a long tradition of honoring its fallen. We award Gold Stars and build monuments, we stand for moments of silence and sit at memorial services. These rituals give the country a way to confront tragedy on a grand scale, building a sense of common purpose for the challenges ahead.|
|But in the face of these deaths, Americans have been left to their trauma. To mourn, alone. While there has been an outpouring of public gratitude — nightly applause for health workers, food sent to hospitals, masks sewn and shipped across the country — there has been a remarkable lack of public grief. In part, the silence reflects the nature of this illness. Death happens alone, the last gaze of a loved one often just a tinny image framed by the blue light of a computer screen. Funerals, if they happen, are private. Bodies pile up in crematories, cemeteries and refrigerated trucks.|
The dead are reduced to a statistic and fodder for debate as to who to blame. Their survivors grieve the precious souls they’ve lost—alone.
In the best of times, the loss of someone we deeply love is painful and life-changing. As Ms. Lerer observes, the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic have obliterated our traditional means and rituals for grieving and paths to healing. Add to this the stress and anxiety from the huge upheavals in our economy and social and political environments, one’s grief becomes overwhelming and even small steps toward healing seem unattainable.
So What Can I Do?
There is one thing each of us can do to help someone who has lost a friend or loved one to COVID-19 not feel so all alone: Write a heartfelt letter of condolences.
My family has some hard-earned experience as to why this is so important and helpful. As we wrote in How To Write A Beautiful Condolence Letter To Someone Who Has Lost A Child, in those first few days in 2008 after our 24-year-old son, Jimmy, was accidentally struck and killed by an automobile walking home from a friend’s house, we received hundreds of cards and letters of condolence. We tried to read them all, but we were in the middle of a hurricane, and the well-intentioned words blurred and ran together. Most rushed to put down a few words and get the card in the mail as quickly as possible—just as we would have done.
The most memorable letters, the ones that deeply impacted us, were some of those we received a few weeks, months and even years later. Some couldn’t write us right away—especially Jimmy’s friends—their pain was too great. Others knew it would be better to wait for our storm to die down and take some time with what they wanted to say.
In those first days and weeks after we lost Jimmy, we were surrounded by family and close friends. There were one-thousand mourners at Jimmy’s service. But then they had to return home, to their jobs, their lives. That is when we began to feel alone with our grief. Even without a COVID-19 pandemic.
That’s what made those later-arriving letters all the more important to us: They hadn’t forgotten, Jimmy or us; they were still hurting, too. That they took the time out of their busy lives to write us a letter filled our hearts.
But what if I don’t know somebody who has died from COVID-19?
Dare I say, that is even more powerful. We received several condolence letters from people who didn’t know Jimmy or us. Yet, upon learning of his death, perhaps by reading the articles in the newspapers or his obituary, an emotional chord was struck and they reached out. Some had lost children and, although they didn’t know “us,” they knew only too well the long road of grieving ahead of us. There were those who had children and the thought of losing one of their own was so painful they were compelled to express their sorrow for us. And others, including some who made contributions to Jimmy’s memorial scholarship fund, no reason was given.
Nor was a particular reason required or expected. For us, the fact someone made the compassionate, even brave, step to connect with us spoke volumes. They cared. We were not alone.
My wife, Hilary, had her own recent experience with sending condolences to someone you don’t know—and this time she was the sender. As she shared in
Hilary had read an obituary for a woman, about her age, who lived in nearby Encinitas. Hilary was deeply moved by the words written by the woman’s only child, a son, who expressed boundless love for his mother and the sacrifices she made for him. So, Hilary sent him a message through Legacy.com:
This message is for Robert, the loving son of the incredible Joan. I didn’t know your mother, but the amazing story you wrote of her life brought me to tears and inspired me. You have honored her in the best way in putting your heart and soul into this announcement of her loss. I am her same age, and have shared this with friends who have also, like me, chosen Motherhood. Your deep appreciation for that choice honors us all, and we thank you. I lost a son a decade ago and promise you this grief you must be feeling will soften, and the love you feel will always remain. God Bless your family. Hilary Gauntt
Two days later, Hilary received a long reply from Robert. Her message brought him to tears and he shared more about his mother’s life, all that she meant to him and other personal anecdotes. He was so grateful.
What Hilary did was pure and simple.
She wrote a few carefully chosen heartfelt words and posted a message with nearly the same impact as if she had grabbed this young man and hugged him into her bosom.
It was powerful because it was genuine, sincere and from the depths of Hilary’s soul. She knew what his mother’s only child was going through.
Hilary knew how so alone we can feel with our grief.
Hilary knew when we’re suffering, we so welcome a heartfelt touch, message, some acknowledgement.
Hilary felt Robert’s considerable pain—his grief—he screamed with the precious words he wrote for his Mom.
Hilary’s act of kindness and compassion let him know she heard, and Robert was not alone.
But I don’t know how to write a condolence letter, especially to someone I don’t even know!
It is not as hard as you might think, especially if you come with a compassionate heart. As we shared in HOW TO WRITE A BEAUTIFUL CONDOLENCE CARD TO SOMEONE WHO HAS LOST A CHILD
There are six ingredients to a beautiful condolence letter
We’ve slightly modified these for letters to someone you don’t know. You may not be able to incorporate all six, and that’s OK. Do the best you can with what you’ve got. Hilary only knew what she read in the memorium Robert wrote for his mother. Remember, it is not about what you say. What is important is that you care enough to write anything at all.
Open strong with something from the heart. Hilary began her letter to Robert with: This message is for Robert, the loving son of the incredible Joan. I didn’t know your mother, but the amazing story you wrote of her life brought me to tears and inspired me. Other possible openings:
This is for the family of Jane Doe. I am so deeply sorry for the loss of your beloved Joan to COVID-19. Although I did not know Jane, her loss and the death of so many souls to this ravaging disease has deeply saddened me, my family and everyone in this country.
Compliment the one who is gone or share a connection you may have. Hilary wrote: I am her same age as your mother, and have shared this with friends who have also, like me, chosen Motherhood.
Try to find something about the person and mention what you found interesting, stood out or you have in common. In addition to obituaries, newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and New York Times have posted wonderful pieces where they have featured the victims of the disease with photos and short biographies.
If the loved one was in the service: I know you will always be proud of John’s service to his country.
A shared love: 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.
A shared place: I read Lynne lived in Roselle, Illinois. I grew up in the town next door, Itasca, and went to Lake Park High School in Roselle.
A shared experience: I too fought in Afghanistan after 9:11. I didn’t serve with John, but I’m sure our boots covered much of the same ground and brought many of the same memories-some good, many not—home with us.
Share a favorite memory of the person. If you can. You may have to pass on this one if you don’t know the person who died. Hilary did. That’s OK.
Compliment the loved ones. Hilary wrote Robert, the amazing story you wrote of her life brought me to tears and inspired me. You have honored her in the best way in putting your heart and soul into this announcement of her loss. Your deep appreciation for that choice [motherhood] honors us all, and we thank you.
It takes courage to bare your soul and share with the masses the life and loss of your loved one. Acknowledge that.
Thank you for sharing with us more about your brother. I am fortunate to know a little more about him—the man, the friend, the co-worker, the son, the brother, the husband, the father.
Say something uplifting. Hilary closed with I lost a son a decade ago and promise you this grief you must be feeling will soften, and the love you feel will always remain. God Bless your family.
One of the most beautiful letters we received was from Chris, a fraternity brother in college. He never met Jimmy, but he understood the depth of our loss.
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.
Take your time with the words you choose. As I mentioned, some of our most memorable letters were the ones that came later, and the writers had spent some time thinking about what to say.
We received Chris’s letter almost two months after Jimmy died, and what made his words even more remarkable was at the time he was serving as Chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and was in the front lines trenches battling this country’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. He took some time that he didn’t have to go into the calm of the eye of his hurricane and write us a letter. That meant as much to us, perhaps even more, than the beautiful words themselves.
Some might think, ‘if I say something weeks or even months after a person has passed, that will reopen the wound and make the family feel bad.’ Trust me on this: the exact opposite is true.
Our good friend Diane got it right in our post GREETING GRIEF
I learned following my father’s death that those who are in tremendous grief always have that on their shoulders. It is forever present in their soul because their loved one is always on their mind. Others around you are usually afraid to mention it for fear it will stir up a sad emotion. However, I discovered that it is the opposite. If a person mentions their name or asks how you are doing, it actually adds comfort because you realize that someone else is acknowledging your grief.
In How To Write a Beautiful Condolence Card we included some things to avoid in a condolence letter. I’ll only briefly mention some of them here.
Fight the urge to default to the clichés- ‘words cannot express,’ ‘I cannot imagine what you are going through,’ ‘I can only imagine your pain.’ Words are all you have and your imagination is not relevant or helpful to the bereaved.
Avoid attempts to compare, rationalize or project. ‘Time heals all wounds.’ Don’t try to make them feel better-you won’t-and you can’t. Plus, it’s just not true. ‘I know she’s in a better place;’ ‘God had a plan and needed to bring her home.’ Even if you think this is true, it’s best to avoid injecting your personal belief system unless you are certain the recipient is on the same page.
The opening line of this card really jumped out 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.
I would avoid mentioning any loss you have suffered unless it is the same: eg. you also lost a loved one to COVID-19. You are writing a sympathy card—not an empathy card.
For the men. Guys 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 us when we did.
Don’t expect a reply. Although you might get one, like Hilary did from Robert, a reply to a condolence letter is not required and should not be expected. You are sending words of comfort and compassion to ones who are suffering. It’s about them, not you.
Here are some examples of condolence letters I’ve written to those who have lost a loved one to COVID-19.
The Chicago Tribune ran a special edition to honor and remember those in the Chicago area who have died from COVID-19. Lynne passed in late March and her bio mentioned she was from Roselle, the town next to Itasca where I grew up. I posted this letter on her Facebook page.
FOR THE FAMILY OF LYNNE
I am so deeply sorry for your loss. Although I didn’t know Lynne, I enjoyed reading about her in the wonderful piece published by the Chicago Tribune on May 29 to honor and remember her and the too many others in Illinois who have been taken by this dreadful disease. “Roselle” caught my eye. I grew up in next door Itasca and went to Lake Park High School, graduating in 1968. For us spread across the country, we watch the nightly news and see the daunting numbers of people who have passed from Covid-19. But we don’t see their names or faces. We don’t get to know who they really are. That is why I so appreciated the Tribune’s effort. Lynne is so much more than a statistic: She was a wife, mother, grandmother, sister and friend, deeply loved and missed by so many. I also loved reading that Lynne was a hard-working and talented cakemaker and cared for many children.
I am profoundly sad for the loss of your Lynne and the cumulative, crushing loss of so many others who have died from this disease. May you find some comfort in knowing the love you have for Lynne and her love for you cannot be taken away, and that love will endure and always be there for and with you all. Please also know there are so many of us who feel your pain and deeply care about your healing and wellbeing. Blessings to you all.
Jim died from COVID-19 in early April. This dad, grandfather, fitness fanatic and lifelong Cubs fan was 68 and lived in Wheaton, also very near to my hometown. I posted this message on his memorial page on Legacy.com.
FOR THE FAMILY OF JIM
I am so deeply sorry for your loss. Although I didn’t know Jim, I so enjoyed reading about him in the wonderful piece published by the Chicago Tribune on May 29 to honor and remember him and the too many others in Illinois who have been taken by this dreadful disease. “Wheaton” caught my eye. I grew up in nearby Itasca and went to Lake Park High School, graduating in 1968. And I, too, was an avid fan of the Cubbies. I still have the miniature bat I bought at Wrigley Field that Ernie Banks signed after a game in the early 1960s.
For us spread across the country, we watch the nightly news and see the daunting numbers of people who have passed from Covid-19. But we don’t see their names or faces. We don’t get to know who they really are. That is why I so appreciated the Tribune’s effort. Jim is so much more than a statistic: He was a husband, dad, grandfather, friend and colleague, deeply loved and missed by so many. I also loved reading about Jim’s devotion to fitness, another thing we have in common.
I am profoundly sad for the loss of your Jim and the cumulative, crushing loss of so many others who have died from this disease. May you find some comfort in knowing the love you have for Jim and his love for you cannot be taken away, and that love will endure and always be there for and with you all. Please also know there are so many of us who feel your pain and deeply care about your healing and wellbeing. Blessings to you all.
P.S. And Meghan, I’m so glad you got that sign from your Dad.
Solana Beach, California
This post is dedicated in loving memory of my beloved aunt, Joan Westlund Case. Your smile continues to fill our hearts and your light shines upon our paths.
Joan Westlund Case May 20, 1930- June 3, 2018