Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Sincere Condolences

As I near the second anniversary of my dad's death from pancreatic cancer, I've begun to relive the events of two years ago all over again. There are so many awful things that my family associates with that time and those events, but when I think of the good things we'll hold on to, the many lovely condolence cards we received will be one of precious few.

A Cup of Jo wrote a wonderful post in August about how to write a condolence note, and unlike what you might find in Martha Stewart or a generic advice column, it had really useful, specific, and thoughtful tips from someone who actually had experienced loss. Everyone's different, of course, but pretty much everything she shared I found to be true in my own experience. I'm sharing the major points here, and adding my thoughts for those who experience that terrible "stuck" feeling when trying to put deeply felt sympathies into meaningful words or action, but please go check out the original post, as well.

We received so many cards, emails, phone calls, meals, and offers of help, from the time my dad was diagnosed with cancer till after he died. Every single one of them held us up on a life raft of encouragement and love. Nothing said here is in criticism of anything anyone did for us, as I have only gratitude for the hundreds who stepped up in our support or in his memory. No gesture was too small, no meal unappreciated, no card went unread. But, as someone who has personally experienced the desire to do something for grieving friends or overwhelmed care-takers and their patients, and been hampered by not knowing exactly what or how, hopefully some of what I've learned will be helpful.

Families coping with cancer and other terminal illnesses experience death over a period of time. That time could be days, months, or years, but the sick and their families need constant encouragement. In this respect, I've treated condolences as not only what you might send after someone dies, but what you might do while they are still alive.

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Snail mail a card. Every email, phone call, everything was wonderful; I was astounded by how kind people were. Physical cards were especially nice to hold onto. I didn’t care at all what the card looked like. I have them in a basket in our living room and see them every day.  [A Cup of Jo]
Greeting cards get a bad rap these days. It's easy to drop $6-$7 on a card, which feels kind of ridiculous, even when someone is dying - sorry, but true. The card itself doesn't matter, it could be stationery or a post-it note, but getting something in the mail is still something everyone looks forward to (right?). Oh, and if you know the family well enough, funny cards are always better than any card that actually mentions death, loss, grief, or sympathy or any other depressing cliche. Like the author, my mom also kept a basket of these on the kitchen counter and I remember reading through all of them multiple times.

When someone is sick with something like cancer, you might spend hours a day on the phone and computer. Insurance calls, doctor calls, appointment confirmations, reviewing medical records and transcripts, researching new cures, educating yourself about the disease, the list goes on and on. You might spend hours a day just on hold getting nowhere. I know for several of us during that time, keeping up with phone calls felt a little like work. Even if the caller doesn't ask for a return call - and p.s. you probably never should - phone calls are something to be checked and listened to, and then what do you do about them - delete them? That feels harsh. It's nice to hear people's voices, but they are harder to save and listen to later. 

As we all know, emails don't generally feel as personal as getting a piece of mail. Also, emails are likely to get lost or deleted, and sometimes hard to relocate later. On the other hand, my dad loved email and he spent time every day that he was sick reading and responding to emails from people who were wishing him well. I also started an email "newsletter" updating everyone about his care and progression several times a month, and sometimes several times a week. It was just the most convenient way to communicate, and when you've got a lot on your plate convenience trumps sentimentality. Lots of people responded to every email I sent with thoughtful words and reminders to stay hopeful. Many emailed my dad and mom directly on a regular basis. Those were always welcome and so so so appreciated, especially on the hardest days. They were almost daily reminders that people were out there, following along and making that journey with us. Those meant so much to my dad and he had some really important, albeit brief, correspondence via email in those last few months. In this way I think email is a valuable tool to provide quick and consistent encouragement to those who need it.

Regardless, I think cards win every round. :)

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Describe how you can help. I was so grateful when people said, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” But when people offered specifics, it felt even easier for me to take them up on their offers. One friend wrote, “If you ever want to come over, we can grill and make grapefruit mojitos; we’d love to see you and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for you.”  [A Cup of Jo]
I love that she mentions this, and it is so true. The people who made specific gestures of help were most often people who had experienced what we were going through themselves. It does make it easy for someone to say yes, or accept, or even ask you to do something else completely, when you make a specific offer. I think it makes the gesture feel less "empty" and very personal. Some people made offers of help in areas we really didn't need any, but their willingness to do something, desire to help, and ability to be so specific about it empowered me to ask for their assistance in other ways.

Let me also mention the brain power most family members have left over for making decisions when caring for a terminally ill family member. There is none. There is nothing to spare after translating the doctors' information (or the lack of it), administering medicines, making a game plan for health care, the physical requirements of caring for a sick person, and at the same time trying to emotionally process what the F is happening. The result is that the countless offers you receive sometimes actually feel like more work than help, because they require yet another decision and often delegation. So, within reason, if you feel called or inspired to help in a way that does not intrude on privacy or cause additional stress for the family - just do it. Buy them that book on Amazon and ship it to their house, drop off that dinner with a bottle of wine, mow the lawn on the weekends and come by to walk the dog - and skip the offer. They'll be doubly thankful they didn't have to ask and didn't have to decide.

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Tell stories. I loved when people wrote specific stories about Paul that I’d never heard, and told me how he had impacted them, what they loved about him, positive things they observed about our relationship. I personally think, the more detail, the better. The grieving person is thinking about the person 100% of the time; nothing you say is going to make her sadder; instead, the stories you tell are going to make her feel connected. [A Cup of Jo]
Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. YES. I LOVE hearing about my dad. I love it when people say nice things about him, remember his quirks, remind me what a great service he provided to his hometown, describe his talents, and especially when they tell me things I didn't know before! I cherish those memories like nothing else, and I'm always thankful for people who want to talk about him. (I'm especially thankful for people who talk about him without me having to bring him up.)

One of his cousins wrote me:
"I remember when the river flooded and we heard he had hitchhiked back from college to help, I Immediately felt he would make everything ok. What a pillar of strength, character, ingenuity and dignity! Knowing him has made me strive to be a better person. The legacy he will leave with the world -- no man could want more."
I never knew he hitchhiked home to help with the river clean up! That's crazy. An acquaintance from my high school days emailed me about one of his basketball games where my dad approached him afterward:
"I have never spent much time getting to know your pop, but I have always respected him. After every guys game, he would come up to me and shake my hand and tell me how great we did. I can remember one game in particular, we were playing against a school in Austin. We trailed by 21 points going into the 4th and rallied from behind to win the game. Your dad was ecstatic and came over to tell us it was "one of the most amazing things" he had ever witnessed. Your pop has a way of making people feel good."
I love how specific this story is, and through all the detail you can plainly see how clear a memory it is for the writer - possibly one he'll never forget. My dad did that. My dad made that memory for him something he'll never forget. I needed to know that, as his daughter. Thank you for sharing it.

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Literally nothing is too cheesy to write. Whatever emotion you’re feeling, it’s probably helpful to say. My friend Kimmy, who lives in Sweden, wrote, “I’m sending you love from across the ocean, as you swim through yours.” Another friend wrote: “When your grief feels dark and bottomless, know that we are here to reflect Paul’s light and love back to you, whether it’s next month, next year or in ten years.” If there is something that you think sounds pretty, go for it. They aren’t analyzing what you say — they just feel so raw.
And there is nothing too great you can say about the person. One friend wrote, “I last saw you both at a friend’s wedding; you were gorgeous, and Paul was strong, confident and deeply happy. The awe I felt for him, you, both of you was astounding, and it has only ever grown.” I was blown away. You’re so starved for remembering and thinking you’ve lost something so great, when you hear something positive, it’s affirming and validating. You realize that people get what he meant to you. They understand, they think it’s important too. Your love is not lost in the world.
Of course, you don’t have to be sentimental. One friend wrote, “THIS SUCKS,” and that felt great, too. [A Cup of Jo]
We received some really beautiful letters from people. Not everyone is great with words, but that doesn't matter as long as it's well-meant and honest. All notes were meaningful whether they were straight to the point or read like poetry. I still cry every time I read what many of my cousins wrote about my dad. It just brings him to life on the page:
"Thank you for what has to be the best margaritas and breakfast migas. Speaking of which, thank you to the entire family for making it so new year celebrations anywhere else seem horribly boring. Thank you for teaching me how to shoot, and how to appreciate the worth of a good pair of snake boots. Thank you for being there, and for sometimes being a much needed breath of perspective. Thank you for being an inspiration. I am so proud to be part of this family."
It's so nice to know exactly what they remember him for, and to think that every time they have a homemade margarita or celebrate new years, they'll be thinking of him, too. One of dad's high school friends wrote me, and this funny little anecdote will always make me laugh:
"Even though we didn't stay in close touch over the years, every time we saw each other it was like we'd never left off. I know this is silly, but every time I look at a sponge, I think of him because he showed me how to microwave them in water when they are getting stinky. There are so many good memories I can't list them all, but they are all on my mind now."
I even received this note from the musicians that played at my dad's memorial service!
"We all agreed that we've never played a gig quite like this one, but we were all grateful for being a part of it--the support of your friends and family for your father and for each other was incredible. All the shared stories, and Maggie's wonderful singing, was an outpouring like nothing I've ever seen. On a break, [we] agreed that although we didn't know Chris, we both wish we had. He must have been an amazing person, and we are proud to have helped you honor his memory."
In some ways this last one was weirdly more meaningful than many others from people I knew. These guys showed up and played at my dad's memorial. None of them knew any of us or knew my father. But they left feeling impacted by his life, and one of them was thoughtful enough to share it with me. I appreciated that so much. 
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Consider involving kids. I liked when kids drew a picture of Paul and me. Sometimes they drew a random picture and that was sweet, too. One note said, “Dear Lucy, You’re sad. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I said a prayer for you last night. I’m Molly’s son. Love, Finn.” And then he drew a four-leaf clover. One girl wrote “Sick, Happy, Dr. Paul” and then crossed out the word sick. That was before he died. Her mom was like, I guess she decided she didn’t want him to be sick! It felt so poignant. [A Cup of Jo]
Any little distraction is welcome when you are living a 24/7 cancer-hell. Pictures, drawings, funny gifts, goofy youtube videos - they pass the time, and certainly the long quiet days and nights after someone dies. Kids have that way of getting straight to the point and not beating around the bush. It's refreshing and welcome in those tough and often confusing times.

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Say you’ll never forget him or her. I like hearing that people will miss him. Someone sent me flowers and said, “Thinking of you; we miss Paul dearly,” and that meant a lot. A nurse who worked with him wrote, “We cherish the moments we spent with Paul in the operating room; he will never be forgotten.” Even though she’s a stranger to me, it’s really comforting to know that a nurse out there will never forget him either. 
This phrase was surprisingly and especially comforting to me. People could tell me they were sorry all they wanted, but to remember something specific about my dad and follow it up by "I'll never forget him" was true balm for my soul. I think it just seems like such an important acknowledgement of someone's impact on your life. We meet thousands of people in our lifetimes, and someone must be unique to be remembered - especially by people who didn't know you intimately or all that well. It also gives you the feeling of solidarity and that you aren't alone in the loss - other people are feeling it, too. Help us to remember, so we do not forget.

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Write, even if you’re an acquaintance. A couple of people I didn’t know well still wrote to me (old friends of Paul’s, or the artist who illustrated Paul’s New York Times essay). It meant so much. You don’t have to be a close friend to write. 
Some of the most memorable and moving notes we received were from old friends of my father, or customers he worked for - we didn't know them, but they heard the news through the proverbial grapevine. These were fascinating for all of us, because it was a peek into little bits of his earlier life which we were not a part of or couldn't remember. Additionally, write to old friends you hear are sick, even if you haven't stayed in touch. I think it was very affirming and encouraging for my dad to receive notes from people in his past. Don't let distance, fear, or insecurity allow you to pass up an opportunity to say something you want or need to say.

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Reach out anytime. A few friends texted or sent flowers on the one-month anniversary of his death. Others sent a note a couple months later. They said, “We’re thinking of you,” and that was nice. You are not better two months later. I can imagine it would feel good to receive flowers six months later, a year later.
It's yet another thing to add to your calendar, but especially if you are a close friend - do this. Program it into your phone or write them in the months to come on your planner. It's SO meaningful. Send a card or even just a text. Reach out in some way on important dates like birthdays, death-days, anniversaries, and any other day you think might be challenging for that person. But, don't hesitate to do something on random, insignificant dates as well. I had a hard time on my 30th birthday, ushering in a milestone without him just felt so wrong. The greatest comfort is not feeling alone, and the gaps between one anniversary and the next are often just as hard as those more significant days. 

A dear family friend took grapes my dad had cultivated and made "Saint Christopher's Grape Jelly" for us - such a special, thoughtful gift that allowed us to enjoy something he'd worked on, even many months after he was gone. We still have a jar!

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In writing this post, I went through old emails and notes and read the words people wrote to me during that time. The grief is still there, of course, but I can smile at the stories and memories friends and family shared and know my dad is not forgotten. Those are the condolences that keep on giving!

And if you made it all the way to the end, my sincere condolences for the length of this post!


  1. Touching and helpful post, Laurel. Even as the grief from remembering inevitably wells up.

    1. Thanks, Anna. Hope you all are well! ❤️