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How To Write A Sympathy Note In The Time Of Coronavirus

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The cruelty of the global pandemic seems limitless. So many broken promises, broken connections, broken hearts.

News that the sympathy card sections at the drug store are as bare as the toilet paper aisle at the supermarket might seem like a small detail in the current landscape. But it is a loss layered upon the greatest loss, under the shadow of the virus.

Today, the inner circle of bereaved — children, parents, spouses, siblings — are very much alone in the aftermath of a death. They mourn without the friends, co-workers, and cousins who would have come to lighten the burden of grief — which is a real thing: the weight on the chest, the difficulty of moving. Funerals, wakes, visiting hours and shivas take place in empty rooms.

In the good old days, which is now defined as any time before March 2020, the most important thing you could do after a death was show up. You hugged and maybe held on for a few extra moments that spoke volumes of care. (Remember long hugs?) Sometimes, when there was a big crowd and you didn’t get a chance to hug or speak, eye contact alone made the commitment tangible, words were unnecessary.

Sending a card has always been a way of showing up -- and it has the added benefit of maintaining a safe distance.

Recently, a friend described her elderly mother’s graveside funeral, attended by her three children and their spouses, a priest and pallbearers from the funeral home. Her death was not COVID-related, but she was ill, and my friend wondered if the thought of long days and nights without company had something to do with her dying. The virus changes everything.

So, we do what we can: we send emails or e-cards, sign the virtual guest book posted by the funeral home, Skype, FaceTime or Zoom. No snark, please; it’s a blessing.

My husband was with his mother when she died years ago, in Florida. To this day, he gets teary remembering the comfort of the many messages of sympathy posted on his Facebook page.

He also treasured the notes and cards that came through the United States Postal Service, which — as of today — still exists.

Sending a card has always been a way of showing up — and it has the added benefit of maintaining a safe distance.

(Flickr)
(Flickr)

But with the number of COVID-19 deaths continuing to climb, sympathy cards are as scarce as two-ply toilet paper.

Of course, a message of sympathy can just as easily be sent inside any card. Flowers or birds on the cover are soothing; impressionist paintings and Japanese landscapes are also nice. You don’t need a card at all. For centuries, people wrote messages of condolence on plain paper, also known as stationary.

The loss of sympathy cards is a problem. Confronted with the blank page most of us are at a loss.

“I don’t know what to say.”

Nobody has the right words. It’s not a time for eloquence.

It’s simple. Begin with:

“I am so sorry for your loss.”

Write a line or two about the person who died:

“I’ve been looking at pictures of us.”

“I will always remember how she beamed at your wedding.”

“Reading about him made me wish I’d gotten to know him."

Express a hope for the future:

“I look forward to the day we can be together.”

More than anything, it’s the thought that counts.

Close with something like:

“You are in my thoughts.”

“You are in our hearts/prayers”

“With sympathy and love.”

This is also showing up: the envelope, the stamp, the handwriting that is yours alone, the care and time it took. More than anything, it’s the thought that counts.

Then, send another note after what will be a long, painful, lonely month. Just a postcard is fine.

“Thinking of you.”

It’s a little thing. But now, the least we can do is probably the most.

Anita Diamant is the author of "Saying Kaddish: How to Comfort the Dying, Bury the Dead, and Mourn as a Jew."

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Anita Diamant Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
A Boston-based journalist and author, Anita Diamant has written 12 books, including the bestselling novel, "The Red Tent," which has been published in 25 countries and 20 languages.

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