I am a writer and I love to write. Yet I often find myself reluctant to write when it comes to sympathy notes. It’s impossible to find the words to comfort someone who has lost a partner, a sibling, a parent, a child — even for someone like me who revels in words and spends every day immersed in them. Over the last two years, almost everyone I know has lost someone. What is there to say?
I have learned that to start, say what’s in your heart. Don’t spend time composing just the right sentences, or figuring out a less painful way to say “death” or “dying” or “died.” (Hearing that someone you love has “passed on,” “transitioned” or “slipped away” does little to ease the sting of their absence, the void that exists where a living, loving, breathing, huggable person used to be. That person is GONE.) Say what you feel, even if you think it sounds simple or trite or inelegant. The truth of what you feel is what’s important, more than the words you use to express it.
Example: My mother died in December 2020. My friends and community reached out in myriad ways, and I felt held and uplifted as I have few other times in my life. But the most poignant words came from my students (I teach English to adult immigrants), who used the best words they had, imperfect as they were. One student, an Albanian woman in her 60s, wrote: “No matter how old we are, never we are ready to say Goodbye Mom. Maybe you miss a lot of things. Maybe you don’t have a lot of things, but the Mom will be here forever ... near you.” Another student (a 30-something from Central America) wrote: “Oh, wow, Kathleen, I accompany you in your loss.”
I accompany you in your loss. I don’t think anyone has ever written or said anything to me that has struck me as so profoundly true. Grief, so little spoken of in our culture (although the pandemic has begun to change that), requires not pity but company. It needs someone to sit across the table and bear witness, to be there even without saying anything. We all know grief and loss, and while no one can take away the pain, there is comfort in knowing you’re not alone.
I wrote a eulogy for my father when he died 10 years ago. The funeral took place in the large church in which I’d gone to Sunday school and sung Christmas carols and gotten married. My father had been deeply involved in his community, and the church was full of hundreds of people, and there was one point in the eulogy that I could not get through without breaking down and weeping, no matter how many times I practiced. And indeed, as I stood in the pulpit and delivered that eulogy, I broke down exactly at the spot I knew I would, and struggled to continue. I saw a sea of blurry faces in front of me, and I felt the accompaniment of every person there. I felt them willing me to keep going and also willing me to take all the time I needed. This is what I mean.
There’s a Christian hymn called “Abide With Me,” written by Scottish minister Henry Francis Lyte in 1847, shortly before he died. The title comes from the Bible, from Luke 24:29, when the doubtful disciples encounter the resurrected Jesus, who tells them that all the things he predicted have indeed come to pass. Then Jesus starts to walk away, and the disciples say, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.”
You don’t have to be a believer or a Christian to appreciate the plea in this scene: “Stay with me. Don’t go.” It’s what we all wish we could say to the person we love who has died. But more, it’s what we can do for someone who has suffered a loss: We can abide. To abide means to bear patiently, to “endure without yielding, to accept without objection, to remain stable.”
You can abide even without words. The day after my mother died, I walked out my front door and found a small rock, painted pink, with the words “You can do it” painted in bright white letters. I still have no idea who left it there, but it provided a wonderful sense of comfort to me on a day when getting through grief seemed like something I wasn’t sure I could do. (That rock still sits on my desk, where I see it every day.) A few weeks later, a box arrived from Nordstrom with a soft, warm blanket inside and no note. I called the store, thinking it was a mistake. “No, no mistake,” the customer service rep said. “Someone bought it and had it sent to you, but we don’t have a record of who it was.” I still don’t know. But to this day I feel embraced in a loving hug every time I wrap that blanket around myself.
Don’t be the person who doesn’t write a note or say something because you don’t have the words. The words aren’t important. It’s bearing witness to someone else’s pain and expressing sorrow that they have to go through it even while knowing there may be little that can be done to ease it. After my father died, one of my friends wrote a note that, along with many lovely sentiments, included, “I’m sorry that you have to deal with all the business of death.” At that point, wrestling with getting death certificates and closing my father’s bank accounts and credit cards, etc., it felt wonderful to know that someone understood how frustrating and difficult it was to have to focus on all that when my world was reeling. I felt seen. It was one of the most sympathetic things anyone said to me.
Writing a sympathy note also lets someone know that the person or thing they’ve lost — a marriage, robust good health, a home, a job — is not vanished, forgotten, but is acknowledged as part of them, someone or something that mattered deeply.
No one can ease the pain. We all know that: those of us who are in the midst of it, those of us who wish we could provide some comfort. But the real comfort comes in knowing we are not alone, that others stand ready to feed us, hug us, cry with us, clean out closets and drawers with us — to abide.
Who could ask for anything more?
Kathleen McCleary is a journalist and the author of Leaving Haven (2013), A Simple Thing (2012) and House & Home (2008). Her work has appeared in Parade, The New York Times, The Washington Post and other publications. Her last hike was a sedate seven miles in the Adirondacks in upstate New York.
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