Monday, August 26, 2013

The Power of a Sympathy Card

Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.
Leo Buscaglia

Last week, someone sent me a link to a piece on NPR that ran in 2005 on their "This I Believe" program. It was about how you should always go to the funeral. You do this, not for yourself, but for the family, no matter how inconvenient it can seem. This is so obviously true, and yet how often do we not take the time out of our busy schedules to attend a funeral. As I listened to it, I thought of how many people came to Matthew's funeral. It was mind boggling to us, even in our very raw, very numb states. It also made me think of another really important gesture one can make, and that is writing a note of condolence to the family.

I remember writing my first sympathy card very clearly. It was the fall after my high school graduation, and a girl from my class-Gale Chapman-was killed in an automobile accident. I had already gone away to school and wasn't living at home, when I heard the news. When I called my mom, she told me that the right thing to do (especially because I wasn't able to attend the funeral) was to write the family a note. I remember telling her that I wasn't sure what to say.  My mom told me that I should write how sorry I was, and share a memory about Gale. She told me that the more personal I could make it, the more meaningful it would be for her family, since memories of Gale were all they had now. I labored over many drafts of that first sympathy card, as I tried to get it just right. I hadn't really been friends with Gale since our freshman year, but I was determined to say something "memorable." It also happened that Gale's mother-Mrs. Chapman-was the lunch lady at our high school and dearly beloved. I had seen and interacted with her many times over the past four years. Anyway, I finally got my note to the point I felt I could send it, and off it went. My memorable moment was how Gale and I had dressed up as a soup and sandwich pair for a Halloween party our freshman year. I never saw Mrs. Chapman again, but I hope she received many notes about her daughter that she could treasure over the years.

Since then, I've tried to remember to always write a sympathy card, but I know I haven't always followed through (and I feel guilty, believe me). Like Deirdre Sullivan says in her "This I Believe" segment, you do this because it is the right thing to do. In Judaism we call it a mitzvah. This seemingly small gesture can mean so much to a grieving family.

After Matthew died, the cards started pouring in. We were amazed and humbled by who all we heard from. Some were from the most unlikely people, and yet they had taken the time to write and tell us how very sorry they were. Still others shared wonderful memories of our son, stories we had never heard, or old memories we had long forgotten. Every card was so appreciated.  Of course, nowadays you add all of the different electronic modes of communicating-Facebook, the online guest book of the funeral home, and Caring Bridge-and you feel very held by your community.

So I guess my point is to let you know that those notes and expressions of sympathy ARE really appreciated.  They are simple acts of human kindness that reach out to a grieving family letting them know you are thinking of them in their darkest hours. So please don't ever doubt whether you should send a note or not, just do it. Your words carry more meaning than you can ever know.

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