Brand building through storytelling

The necessary art of condolence notes

Oh, the glorious fripperies I bought in another life! Blue suede shoes with silver heels (too bad I couldn’t walk in them). A slinky, tomato-red suit so tight, I didn’t dare eat a sandwich in it for fear of bursting a seam. A soft little slip of a bag that was supposed to add polish to my look, as fashion writers say, but in fact added nothing but confusion over the one essential item (like directions to the party) that I invariably forgot to transfer from my no-nonsense backpack.

I thought I needed this stuff for meetings and receptions. Now I sit here at my window, writing. I could do this naked, if not for my conviction that I look a lot better in yoga pants and a T shirt.

The purchases I’m making these days fill a single drawer in my desk. I buy note cards, a wardrobe of them. For births and promotions, I have cards aflame with poppies. For thank you notes, I like almond trees in bloom against an azure sky. But these cards tend to languish at the back of the drawer for want of appropriately joyous occasions.

My friends and I, in midlife, are letting go of things that used to mark our place in the world. We are leaving careers, not always by choice, and burying our parents. That’s not all we’re doing, of course. But before we embrace the new possibilities that come with hard-won knowledge of who we really are, we have to give up the selves we used to be.

Today I sent notes to two friends who have just lost their fathers. I reached for the comfortingly neutral white cards, discreetly embossed with a pattern that suggests the linens in a boutique hotel.

My white cards are like my favourite black dress; I can make of them what the moment requires. I always meditate on my words. Then I run my hand over the heavy stock that my friend will soon be touching.

She may not even be a friend, quite. But if she’s someone I might encounter at the gym or the grocery store, I write to her. I’ve learned the hard way how cringingly awkward it is to grope for ways when an acquaintance has been bereaved, and I have not acknowledged her loss.

I had just turned 40 when I opened my first condolence notes. My mother’s death had brought an outpouring of memories from people who knew and loved her. I saved every one, grateful for the merest scrap of a story that could conjure her presence, if only for a minute. I didn’t save the note from Mary, a friend of a friend, who had never even met my mother. I think she said she was thinking of me and my loss. After I tossed Mary’s note, I told our mutual friend how surprised I was to have heard from this woman.

I’m not surprised anymore. Mary understood what mourners need most: to know they’re not alone with their grief. Every death tears a hole in the world. Every gesture of concern is one stitch between the frayed edges.

Of all the social rituals in my life, condolence notes are fast becoming the only one that Jane Austen would recognize. For the most part I tend my relationships online. By e-mail, I’ve shared my thoughts on everything from mind-expanding books to perplexing love affairs. I’ve sealed a friendship or two by e-mail, spurred on by the thrill of immediate connection and the ease of not having to hunt for a stamp. Against my better judgment, I often thank people by e-mail for fear that I’ll forget to send my prettiest card.

I hear there’s a trend toward the virtual condolence. Well, count me out. There are passages in life that call for an old-fashioned sense of ceremony. Hunting for a stamp is part of it. So is walking my note to the mail box and hearing the cover of the slot bang shut. My note falls like an autumn leaf into the tumble of cheques, a barely audible flutter of care.

Not sure how to write a condolence note? Click here for my advice. 

Posted by Rona

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