Tag Archives: The Art of the Handwritten Note

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.”

A Wonderful Life

Birthday cards, no problem. New baby, easy peasy. But when it comes to writing a condolence card the words can have a difficult time flowing from my mind to the page. I’m guessing I’m not alone on this one. Writing a card for a friend on the passing of a loved one can be a challenge whether you’ve known the deceased or never met in person. This being the case, I strongly feel out of all the card writing occasions in the world, this one is the most important and most appreciated.

I recently read an article by Laura Fraser in October’s Whole Living magazine, regarding her process of grieving the old fashioned way. Laura had unexpectedly lost her mother to cancer and what she observed as she mourned was interesting. It was her father and her sister, 7 years older, who received well over a hundred handwritten cards while Laura only a handful of letters. In her generation the way of communication had changed. Most of the condolences she received were sent on Facebook or an email. She stated “Much as I appreciated them, those quick one-liners via e-mail had nowhere near the impact of the words of friends who took the time to find a card, sit down, and recollect my mother’s laugh, or how she never let us take ourselves seriously as kids, or how much she loved to sit on a rock with a wide view of the mountains. Those cards, I’ve kept and will cherish.” She has a point. How often do we print out a Facebook or email which has meaning? For some, never.

Laura also mentioned how much she appreciated people asking “What kind of person was your mom? Are you like your mom? Did she have a sense of humor?.” Why not ask these kind of questions in a letter knowing you can discuss the answers at a later time. Laura felt the phrase “she lived a good long life” dismissed her pain. I’m guilty of glorifying a full life in a condolence card but I understand the writer’s view. It’s personal but it also can be a fine line.

Margaret Shepherd, writer of The Art of the Handwritten Note, suggests which basic phrases to use to anchor a condolence note:

Do Say: I’m so sorry. We’re going to miss him. I have so many wonderful memories of her. I hope you’re doing ok; I will write again after the memorial service. I’m thinking of the nice time we had together last summer. He had a wonderful life. I remember… I knew her through (connection). The (detail) of the service was so comforting. He would have loved..

Don’t Say: I didn’t know him well. You must be devastated. It’s better this way. Life must go on. What can I do to help? I know how you feel. I’m so sad, I’m so upset.

Whatever guideline you follow, it’s the act of writing which holds a level of respect. It gives meaning to this persons’s life. And it’s never too late to write a note. After the beginning stages of grief have passed and acceptance settles in, a written sentiment could help a friend through a tough day. As hard as they are to write, its value is immeasurable.

The Post Holiday Sigh

The post holiday sigh…yes, I heard it coming from my mouth last night. It was sort of a combination of the low pitched ahhhh, I will miss laid back mornings, not crazily getting my boys to brush their teeth and use the toilet before the winter layering begins. And also the high pitched ahhh, back to the schedules, routines and brown ink.  The latter ahhh also had something to do with the bit of relief I felt knowing the Thank You note list has been completed. My goal was to have each recipient crossed off by the time school began and I was thrilled to reach the end.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy writing notes. I do. It honestly does not feel like an obligation, a “should.” It feels more like sending a kiss or handshake in the mail, almost as if the note recaptures my expression when opening the gift.

However, life becomes full even on vacation and taking the time to write notes is not on everyone’s agenda. I get that. So how long do we have to write these needed notes of thanks?

To answer this question I headed to the original, the universally accepted Emily Post’s Etiquette 17th Edition updated by her great-granddaugher-in-law, Peggy (the 18th Edition came out last November, I’m a bit behind the times I guess). Peggy feels it’s almost never too later to send a Thank You note. “Within a week is great; a month is acceptable” she states. But here’s the odd turn. Later on in the book Peggy goes on to state the holiday Thank You note is obligatory “unless you’ve thanked the giver in person. For a very close friend or relative, a phone call is sufficient.” Well surprise, surprise.

My next source is Margaret Shepherd, a calligrapher who wrote the book The Art of the Handwritten Note. She would disagree with Ms. Post and feels even if you open the gifts together, thank each other later on paper. “The notes you write to your own children or younger relative are perhaps the most important of all, because you can inspire them to write their own notes.” Love her.  She also feels “the gifts themselves are not as important in ones friendship as the thank you notes that result.” Margaret is my new guru (more on her in future posts).

What both Post and Shepherd agree upon is the ability to use your natural voice. No one needs to excel at writing to compose a good note.


The Thank You is not only a reminder to your friend of how much you appreciate the gift received but, more importantly, an indication of the value of that person’s friendship. And the beauty is you can send a Thank You note for many reasons, not just after receiving a gift. Such as…

– To someone who provided you meaningful advice

– To a friend who had you over for a memorable meal

– To a host of a fabulous summer cocktail party you attended

– To the post officer who helped you with an enormous amount of packages during the holiday rush

– To the next door neighbor who consistently saves your dinner with the needed lemon or stick of butter

– Or to someone who has supported you through difficult times

I find the unexpected note of appreciation and gratitude is one I value the most of all.

But I digress.  Back to the post holidays notes – And herein lies the question: Have you finished your Thank You notes? We swear, no guilt coming from brown ink only a reminder of the satisfaction you’ll feel knowing your sentiments have been signed, sealed and delivered.  And don’t worry about the length, keep it short. It’s the authenticity that counts. Grab some pretty paper, your favorite pen and get to it. At least before Valentine’s Day.