The Sympathy Card

A few days ago I received news that a friend’s brother, someone I had known since I was in elementary school, was killed in a car accident. I wasn’t really close to the family, though I knew them all, and honestly my friend and I hadn’t done the best job keeping in touch over the years. So when I heard of the brother’s death it was sad, and shocking, but didn’t leave me with intense feelings that my friends closer to the whole family (and still living in the area, driving on the road he died daily, and close to the grieving) have been experiencing.

So I sent a sympathy card. I thankfully don’t have to send many of those. I’ve only ever actually sent two, though I’ve cosigned many. It is very different though, to be the person writing the card, than it is to be the person tacked on because your parents know somebody.

My first sympathy card was two years ago. A friend’s mother, after a lengthy battle with alcoholism and the physical deterioration that can come with it, died not all that unexpectedly. Finding and writing that card was difficult in ways I hadn’t intended it to be. I was angry at my friend’s mother, for being so selfish and cruel to her daughter, I felt terrible for my friend who had resigned herself to their estrangement because it was the emotionally healthy thing to do and not because she did not love her mother. It was difficult to first find a card with no religious over or undertones, but then it didn’t feel right to get a card that talked in flowery Hallmark language about how much the person would be missed. This death reminded me of the death of my paternal grandmother, who had was fed by tube and had deteriorated so much she could not visibly register if she knew people where in the room. Her death was sad but provided a welcome sense of relief and closure, she was done hurting. In the case of my friend’s mother, she was done hurting my friend. Of course there are no sympathy cards that say “Your relationship with the deceased was a complicated one, and I’m glad they can no longer hurt you even though I know you remember better days when they were a positive and loving part of your life.” And it’s probably for the best that there are none that say that, but sympathy cards seem to cover neat deaths, deaths where the relationships are clearly defined. Your loss is a straight tragedy, you will not feel any sense of relief, guilty or otherwise, at this death, you are hurting in a way that fits conventional ideas of grief. I settled for a simple floral card with a short message that focused on me being there for my friend and made no mention of the deceased. With some help I swallowed my complicated feelings, my anger at my friend’s mother for her actions and abuse, and wrote what I hope was a heartfelt encouragement to a dear friend who hadn’t had a mother for several years before she lost her mother.

This death, the loss of my friend’s young brother, this is that conventional tragedy. Too young, too soon, a good kid, a kid who wasn’t behaving recklessly, wasn’t participating in any of the behaviors that ‘deserve’ a car accident, he was in his vehicle at the wrong place at the wrong time. His family has been hurt by happenstance. This is the death the sympathy cards are made for. This time I merely had to weed out the overtly religious ones to find messages I felt were suitable and yet, they all felt like too much and not enough. It felt so disingenuous. What could I say? What could I possibly say that would help this family heal? Nothing. There is absolutely nothing. And it feels so wrong to send these cards and flowers to remind them that they lost a son and a brother far, far too soon. Are the ‘thinking of yous’ that appreciated? Is my ‘I hope you find peace’ card even remotely appropriate? Their grief is currently bottomless. It may stay bottomless, only time will tell. Are we people naive enough to think that a watercolor flower and some vague words of support are enough? Are my words even welcome? I haven’t lost anyone close to me, so it is entirely possible that I simply do not understand. Maybe they just throw the cards away immediately and are thankful for the support. I can’t say, but I can say that writing and sending a sympathy card felt so forced, so unnatural, and not because I lack any compassion or desire to comfort a family I may not be close with, but know is wonderful.

To complicate my relationship with these particular pieces of paper, I found out recently that when my brother was born with Down Syndrome my mother received sympathy cards. Presumably these people were well meaning, but we all know what they say about the road to hell. Although my mother would not name names (she claimed not to remember, which is possible) I can only hope those people received some kind of karmic retribution for being so nasty, intentionally or not. That someone would even use a sympathy card like that… I hold no love for them, but that just seems like greeting card abuse. It’s tacky, it’s horrible, it’s not helpful, and thinking about it upsets me in ways that are deep and profound, that shake me to my very core. The knowledge that they were sent to my mother offers me no peace, no sense of comfort, no sense of support. Just an extreme feeling of alienation, an immense loathing for people unnamed, the lack of ability to even fathom the logic behind this, and an ache that people could perceive someone as wonderful as my brother as something that needed to be apologized for.

I don’t like sympathy cards. I don’t like the circumstances in which they are written, I don’t like the way they sound so forced and stiff, I don’t like the way they fail to convey the real and complicated emotions that accompany death. I hate the way I sound and feel awkward when confronted with writing one, and I hate that they were misused in such an insulting and hurtful way. I suppose that I have reached the time in my life when death becomes a reality I must deal with, however begrudgingly. I suppose that means I have to reach some kind of peace with the sympathy card.


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