My mom had just died (this was twelve and a half years ago, but it’s like yesterday to me), and the sympathy notes were pouring in.
By “pouring in,” I mean I was getting two or three each day, which was a 100% increase over the number of sympathy notes I was accustomed to getting. My mom didn’t have many close friends and was from a rapidly shrinking and mostly estranged family, so the total number of cards came to about 25 in all. But still, that was a large number to me, her only child.
In the midst of my grief (randomly intermittent and shocking in its intensity), in the midst of going through all her worldly possessions (not much to speak of but still a difficult and emotional task), and in the midst of adjusting to the new silence in my life (no daily phone calls from her to tell me about the weather, no daily phone calls from me to tell her what her grandchildren were doing that day), I had an ever-growing stack of notes from people who had taken the time to write to me and offer comfort.
I was pretty sure I didn’t have to “do anything” about those notes—i.e., I didn’t have to respond in any way. Still, because I was raised to Do the Right Thing, etiquette-wise, and because the person who raised me this way was my own mother who had just died, I quickly Googled “do I send thank you’s for sympathy notes?”
I expected to see this: “You are grieving. You are overwhelmed with the many duties you have in going through your dearly departed one’s possessions and in dealing with government/nursing home/hospital/financial institution paperwork. You are clearly overextended and no one in their right mind would expect you to write thank you notes for expressions of sympathy. You have a free pass.”
But this wasn’t what I read. Instead, both Emily Post and Miss Manners said that if someone had sent me a handwritten note (not merely a signed greeting card or an electronic message of some kind), as well as anyone who made monetary or other donations—if at all possible, that person ought to receive a thank you.
So I said back to Google, “You had me at ‘Emily Post,’” and I pulled out the plain white note cards that the funeral home had given to me (package of 25, very convenient), and then I sat down and industriously and dutifully wrote those thank you’s all in one sitting.
I’m kidding. I didn’t do that at all.
I did pull out the note cards from the funeral home. I showed them to my husband and said, “Guess what Emily Post says I ought to do with these?” He wisely refrained from offering an opinion and allowed me to make my own decision, on my own time, as to whether or not to follow through.
Here’s what I actually did: I sat down at the dining room table with a pile of sympathy notes from friends and a smattering of remaining relatives on one side of me, and a clean, bright pile of thank you notes from the funeral home on the other side of me. Black pen at the ready, stamps neatly laid out and ready to be affixed. And then, again, I cried.
I cried for myself, for my loss, for my mom, for my little pile of tangible, physical sympathies, for the seemingly monumental task at hand. And when I was done crying, I picked up each note in the pile and reread what the sender had to say to me.
“Dear Rebekah … I was so sorry to hear of your loss … We are saddened to hear that your mom has … I’m sorry to hear of Florence’s passing this week … I’m so sad that your dear mom has passed away …” They all started in about the same way, but then they veered off in different directions:
“I remember well the summers when your mom would come visit us at the lake … I have many good memories of working with Florence … In the short time your mom was at our church … I know how much she meant to you, her only child … I have such fond memories of Florence … You were such a good daughter to her in her final years of illness and hardship … I pray that God would comfort you in your time of sorrow for the loss of your mom.”
Each sympathy note was different from the next in big or small ways. Each note brought me a little closer to understanding my mom in the context of her whole life—a life that started long before I existed and continued for 67 years. The notes brought such closure to me, as well as a strong sense that my mother had a life, a full life, whether I was around her or not. Sometimes that’s a hard thing for children, even adult children, to grasp.
And each thank you card I wrote in return (not all in one sitting but spread out over a number of days), shed new light on my mom’s life and our relationship in ways that I didn’t expect.
Because the fact was, my mother and I had rarely seen eye to eye. We had a challenging, on-and-off relationship for many reasons, several of which were out of our own control. We bonded over a few precious things, though: books, public gardens, music, my kids (of course), and the man we both had loved so much—her father and my grandfather. And now, through these notes, we were bonding over words of kindness from others. And then again through my own personal responses to each and every one of them.
When I sat down to write those obligatory notes of thanks, I never expected to receive so much in return. What I thought would be a tedious, hand-aching process instead was cathartic and healing. The content of each sympathy card I received didn’t matter nearly as much as the fact that it had been sent at all, and the act of writing back with a thank you seemed to lift me, for the moment at least, from my deep sadness. Despite all the troubles I’d had with my mom, and despite all of our differences, I learned during this task that we had some very important things in common: we were both loved and we mattered to others—and that brought me closer to her with every note I wrote.
I’ve noticed over the past decade or so that thank you notes of all kinds seem to be going out of style. It’s much more common now to send an electronic word of thanks or even to forgo the entire enterprise. But what I found twelve years ago is that there was a reason beyond just “etiquette” for taking the time to express gratitude to others. The benefits were not just for the person who would receive my note. The blessing was also for me.