messages in grief

Condolence Letters in an Online World

A condolence note from a friend I've kept for years

A condolence note I’ve kept for years


A favorite condolence note included only nine words. “Heart shattered lives….by no means escape God’s notice.”   After our daughter died in Bolivia, Suzette wrote this contemporary translation of Psalm 51 on a simple ecru card with her beautiful personal handwriting and signed it.  For years, I propped this treasured card on my desk, a visual assurance that we don’t walk on this pilgrimage alone.  Often such notes from friends help us heal along our journey in grief.


Parents I interviewed for Pilgrimage through Loss also shared how they’ve kept condolence notes for years.  “I am a private person,” said Lorie, the mother I mentioned in my post Helping Siblings Face Sorrow who had lost premature twins shortly after birth.  “I didn’t want a lot of visitors, but I loved each note sent to me.  They let me know the world cared.”   Many years later, she still has them in a basket at home.


But as the folk song says, “Times, they are a’changing.”


In an increasingly on-line world, people are turning to Facebook, texting, and on-line funeral memorial sites to offer another way of expressing one’s feelings.  It’s also the natural way of daily communication for many, especially young people.   For others, often older and accustomed to believing in the power of written notes, the thought of sending condolences to a grieving person via instant technology is often seen as heartless and lazy. “I’d hate it,” expressed one 70-year-old who values the courtesy of the written word.


But I saw another picture this week when a dear friend’s husband died suddenly of a stroke.  When Mary Beth left her home in the morning, her husband had enjoyed breakfast and was in his favorite chair reading the newspaper and listening to NPR.  By time she came home in the afternoon, she found him almost comatose.  When he didn’t revive, she called 911 and he died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital.  As you can imagine, the shock after 52 years of marriage is profound.


While I visited the next morning, amidst her tears she mentioned “I can hardly believe all the tributes to Dick coming in on Facebook. It’s how all the young people communicate these days.”  Many came from friends of her daughter Jeanne and late son Stephen. Her face lit up briefly as she said, “They are writing about how much they say our marriage has meant to them.”  Within less than 18 hours, because of Facebook, friends of their family living across the nation were pouring in their thoughts and feelings.  She clearly felt the gift of their compassion and remembrances.


“Our on-line world offers the immediacy of response,” said Jerry Sittser, author of A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief that explores the loss of his wife, daughter, and mother all in one car accident. “I know this immediacy can be meaningful.”   Because his family died before the onset of our virtual age, all the hundreds of condolences he and his three remaining children received came through personal letters.    “However, a heartfelt thoughtfulness emerges when someone takes the time to really sit down and discern what they hope will convey the depth of their love and memories and care for you.  I hope families still receive such gifts.  Notes and letters are also so tactile….you can hold them in your hand and reread and reread if desired.”


Not an Either-Or Choice


As customs change, it doesn’t have to be an ‘either-or’ choice.   We can give a genuine response to a Memorial Site on-line or to a Facebook tribute or text.  But later, we can also take the time to compose a heartfelt letter, or find a card that symbolizes what we want to convey to a family in grief.  Either way, what grieving persons often say they most appreciate are the anecdotal stories that friends share.  Such a collection of memories ease a broken-heart.  Long after the intensity of the memorial service and early weeks abate, a family is left with the emptiness of a loved one gone.  Receiving a written note offers a tangible way for families to linger and dwell in the love that surrounds them.  It’s a worthy investment of time and thoughtfulness.  Who knows, the letter you thoughtfully write…even if only nine words long…may be the gift a person treasures for years!


What do you think? 








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About Linda
For everyone, life sometimes brings shipwreck moments.

Ours happened when four friends woke us one beautiful May dawn to break the news that our 25-year-old married daughter Krista had died 7000 miles away while volunteering in Bolivia. Our hearts shattered, much like the shards of her bus that plunged over a mountain cliff.
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Support for Parents

+ Alliance of Hope for Suicide Survivors On-line forum and website

+ American Childhood Cancer Organization (ACCO) (Formerly Candlelighters Childhood Cancer)

+ Compassionate Friends

+ First Candle: Support for Stillborn and SIDS deaths

+ Loving Outreach to Survivors of Suicide (LOSS)

+ MISS Foundation (also in Spanish) On-line support groups : Infant & toddler death and advocacy

+Parents of Murdered Children

+ TAPS: Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors: 1-800-959 3277 for survivors of military deaths