Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

We live in a world where communication occurs mostly through text, email and other forms of social media. However, when it comes to a condolence letter, a handwritten card is the only route to take. Coming from someone who enjoys writing, I find this particular card difficult, at times gut-wrenching and simply unnatural. I mean, where do I begin to summarize one’s life, how deep does one go, what words do I select, how can I be formal yet emotional in one card? This one is a toughie.

In The Lost Art of the Condolence Letter, Saul Austerlitz shares his recent process of writing this personal letter and the difficulty in finding the words. “Writing was not a matter of taking a prefabricated thought and setting it down on paper, but using the art of setting words on paper to determine just what that thought might be. That system, which generally served me well in my professional life, had never felt so threadbare, so woefully insufficient to the task at hand as facing the prospect of paying condolence. How do you summarize a life? A friendship? What words can do justice to the entirety of a person?”

Deviant Art: pencil on page<br /><br /><br />
CC: Mark Downing Photography

He believes the act of writing a condolence letter forces you to take the time to select your thoughts and to share your compassion and stories. It took him three hours to write each one of his recent condolences letters and, after each letter, he felt better…”Not because by setting down words on paper, I had preserved something ephemeral, endangered. Emotions were pinned to the page like rare butterflies, no longer falling around indiscriminately, glimpsed only as they fluttered off, but preserved for future study.”  This thought hit me the most. It’s not necessarily how perfectly you phrase your sentences, but by communicating through a letter what this mutual friend meant in your life, you two mourners are benefitting.

Margaret Shepard, the author of The Art of the Handwritten Note, believes you should write a condolence letter even if you see this person often, the letter recognizes the importance of the event. She also feels it’s important to “be real” by using the name of the person and to not be afraid to use the word ‘death’.  Shepard lists a few ‘Don’t Say’ phrases such as “I know how you feel” or “I don’t know what to say” and “You must be devastated” but I believe you cannot go wrong when the words are coming from your heart.

If you’d like to share memories this is your opportunity. But if you decide to keep it short, be yourself. In the end, the recipient will be more pleased to have received your thoughts than to find nothing at all in the mail. And you will feel better for it.  As Austerlitz believes, “I write because I desperately need to communicate, and because I know that ultimately, I cannot. I write to remember, and to be remembered. The one desire emerges from the other.”

6 thoughts on “ Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word

  1. Cheryl Hauser

    So, so beautifully written, Wendy, and such significance in what you expressed. Of course 37 years ago when my parents parished in a plane crash, there was no other way to express condolences other than the hand written note. I still have many of those personal, emotional sympathy notes. They told stories of my parents, memories that were significant to the writer, reflections, deep sorrow – everything that brought me comfort. I treasure all of them to this day. So…don’t be afraid to write what you feel. The receipant will cherish it.
    Cheryl (Wendy’s Mom)

    1. wendy Post author

      Good to be reminded of the importance of these letters by your story, Mom. Let’s make a time to look through these together. xoxo

  2. Jane Reichert

    Prior to my mom passing away, I too was unsure of what to write in a condolence card. Many times, I fell back on the usual suspects– thinking of you, sorry for your loss, you are in our prayers. Not that these words weren’t true, because they were, but I used them because it was difficult for me to empathize with what the recipient was going through, having never lost a close loved one before. And because I couldn’t have that empathy, I was afraid of saying something that would give offense (like those “Don’t Say” phrases). When my mom died last year, I was truly overwhelmed by the number of letters and cards I received. Most were from people I expected to hear from, but mixed in with those were notes from neighbors I spoke with once a year who heard about it from another neighbor. Or from old college friends who were now regulated to “facebook friend” status. Some were short and said the standard phrases. Others covered pages with stories about my mom and how she would be remembered. Short or long though, as your mom said in her comment, I do cherish each and every one. They are something tangible for me to keep and reflect on. They help me remember not only how my mom’s life touched others, but that I am part of a larger circle of support and love that I never even could have imagined existed….such a comfort then and such a comfort now.

    1. wendy Post author

      Thank you for sharing this time in your life while honoring your mother and placing such value on the letters you received after her death. It was a gift to hear your story my friend.


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