Illness, loss and words of comfort

New York Times Personal Health writer Jane Brody last week noted another chapter in the wrenching drama she has shared with readers, first with the cancer diagnosis of her husband, lyricist Richard Engquist, and later following his death on March 18. In the new essay Brody tells of condolences received from friends and strangers. The writing, she says, has been therapeutic.

But one piece of therapy I never expected was the feedback from readers, friends and acquaintances: many hundreds of condolence letters, e-mail messages and comments on The New York Times’s Well blog.

Whether in a card, note, letter, phone message, hug or pat on the shoulder, some people seem to know instinctively how to show they care and will remember the deceased. What stands out most in these messages is their deeply personal quality. People who knew my husband in various walks of life (especially his advocacy for his beloved Prospect Park and his career as a writer for the musical theater) saw him in ways that had escaped me, because I was too close to have their perspective. By sharing these details, they have rounded out my memories of a life shared and separate from his — memories I will cherish for the rest of my life.

Brody gives examples of the many messages about her husband that brought comfort, and offers thanks for the fact that those unwanted messages — “Surely you’ll meet someone else;” “I know how you feel, my dog died last year” — had not arrived.

There’s one thing often of great comfort to someone who’s suffered a loss that Brody doesn’t include and that doesn’t occur to everyone. It’s the reminder of what the survivor meant to the now-deceased, one of the easiest ways to write a quick, meaningful condolence note. I learned it many years ago from someone I never met. Her Army officer brother, to whom I’d been pinned (an emblem of commitment in those olden days; I’ve no idea if such customs still exist) was killed in Korea. I could not travel across the country for the funeral, all of the sympathy and support was rightfully going to his family, but I felt bereft and unconsoled. Then I got a two-line note. “Dave said you could always make him smile,” she wrote; “and that will always make us smile.”

Thoughtful people have reinforced the knowledge of how much such a thought can mean. “Your mother was so proud of you because —.” Happily, in this fast-moving world the snail-mail sympathy note seems to survive. And I suppose even the e-mail condolence is better than nothing. If you’re stumped for a note you could be writing, try it this way.

One response

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