Randall Beach writes: Sending out your thoughts during this pandemic
June 23, 2020 Updated: June 24, 2020 11:34 a.m.
Carol Christmas of Hamden, who has a card-writing service, offers advice on writing condolence cards in this time of many deaths from COVID-19. Photo: Peter Hvizdak / Hearst Connecticut Media
Carol Christmas sat on her front porch in her quiet Hamden neighborhood Tuesday afternoon and remarked, “I just can’t imagine how many people out there are grief-stricken.”
With the death toll from COVID-19 in America standing at more than 123,000 and hundreds more dying every day, Christmas is encouraging people to write, in their own words on paper, a note or letter of condolence.
This is her business. In December 2018, two and a half years after she retired from her career as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service, she launched The Write Way, offering her excellent penmanship to compose notes for people who have difficulty doing this.
But now, she admits, The Write Way (www.writealetter.org) is “on the back burner” as she works to get help from people more skilled in using social media. “I was trying to get up-to-date on this technology. But that’s when everything went into lockdown.”
And so now she’s telling people to pick up a pen and write their own condolence messages. She realizes it will mean more coming from that person instead of from a hired professional. She also advises people to avoid going to a store and buying a card “somebody got paid to write” unless you add a few lines below the generic message.
“It’s a difficult thing to handle,” she acknowledged, “because we live in a death-denying culture. People have to do some soul searching when reaching out to someone about a death.”
I asked her to elaborate on the phrase “death-denying culture.” She replied: “‘Forever young.’ When I worked at the Post Office I used to ask my co-workers: ‘Do you have a will?’ The majority of them didn’t. Most people don’t.”
And yet she believes that more people are at least writing notes or letters, many of them condolences, in this time of pandemic lockdown. People have more time and they’re feeling more emotional. Also, let’s face it: there are more people dying, so we have more opportunities to write such messages.
“In uncertain times people revert to handwriting and letters,” Christmas said. “People are looking for ways to reach out to each other.”
“This is the perfect time to write a condolence letter,” she noted. “You can’t go to a funeral because of the restrictions. If you can go, you have to wear a mask; you can’t hug anybody. So sending a note is one way to get something into people’s hands. It has the greatest impact of all forms of communication. It’s better than a phone call. Words on paper are lasting. People can read them, share them and look at them again down the road.”
She often hears people say they are intimidated by the idea of writing a condolence message. Christmas says it’s fine to initially do what most people now do: send a text or email to acknowledge the loss. “But then follow up soon with a card. If that card or letter doesn’t come, you will be remembered for your neglect.”
What should the note or letter say? “I encourage people to say something about the person. ‘Your mom had a great sense of humor’ or ‘Your dad taught me how to play baseball in Little League.’ You probably have a wealth of stories, precious moments. Those are the things people need to hear. Pass on some kind of jewel, how this person impacted your life. It will be cherished by the family; they’ll find out something they had no way of knowing.”
Offering to help out is also a nice gesture, Christmas said. “If you live nearby, the gift of time is an important thing. Don’t just say ’Call me if you need anything.’ Cut the grass, do something.” She recently sent soup and other comfort food to a woman whose husband had died.
Christmas showed me some of the condolence cards she received after her sister Andrea Hernandez died a year and a half ago. One of them was a commercial card and the sender had merely signed his name. But listen to this one: “Carol, so sorry for your loss. My heart and thoughts go out to you. May your healing journey be full of loving memories, laughter and care. Be kind to yourself as you move along this path.”
Christmas said the often-used phrase “sorry for your loss” does work, at least for a starting point. But here’s what you should never say in your note: “You’ll get over it” or “He’s better off.”
There are plenty of other inappropriate messages, as listed by Margaret Shepherd in her book “The Art of the Personal Letter: A Guide to Connecting Through the Written Word.” Christmas has it in her home library.
“Never write ‘I know how you feel,’ ‘You’ll feel better,’ ‘I don’t know what to say’ or ‘It’s better this way,’” Shepherd advised.
She added, “Acknowledge the loss specifically without using euphemisms such as ‘passed away.’ Mention specific qualities of the deceased beyond generic words of praise. Add a specific happy memory of the person who has died.”
Christmas noted this is also a good time to be sending out sympathy cards for people who have had a motor vehicle accident, gotten divorced or lost a job. She cited the millions of people who have been thrown out of work because of the pandemic.
“This is the time to do it,” she said. “You can’t go to the hospital to visit somebody; you can’t go to a funeral. But the Post Office is still working. And this is a step toward healing.”
Contact Randall Beach at 203-865-8139 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above article appeared in The New Haven Register yesterday. It was inspired by my post: “Expressing Sorrow,” https://writealetter.org/2020/05/31/expressing-sorrow/so some points are repeated. I am very grateful to have had this opportunity to influence my local community with my words as a public service.