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Caring for the Mourners: Writing Condolence Cards and Supporting the Mourners

The mitzvah (responsibility) of halvayat hamet (literally “accompanying our dead to their final resting place”) does not end when the deceased’s body is placed in the ground. Rather it continues until the mourners can walk forward into life with some semblance of confidence and strength. Our tradition reminds us that this is a long process, taking a minimum of eleven months and often longer.

So often our intentions are pure but life gets in the way. Or our discomfort with death keeps us from acting. Here are two simple ways to reach out to mourners, to fulfill the mitzvah within a community?

1. Write a Condolence Card.
If you know the deceased or his/her family, but even if you do not, sending a note (or e-mail) of condolence helps break down the sense of isolation that accompanies the death of a loved one. It shines a light through the darkness. A condolence letter has two main goals: to offer tribute to the deceased and to be a source of comfort to the survivors. Some people are uncomfortable writing such a note. We wonder what to say.

Usually, in writing a condolence card/note, focus on accomplishing any of six things:

  • acknowledging the loss and naming the deceased
  • expressing your sympathy
  • noting special qualities of the deceased (if we knew him/her)
  • recalling a memory about the deceased
  • offering help (but only if you can be specific: e.g., “let me bring a meal next week” or “I will come and do some shopping for you.”)
  • ending with a word or phrase of sympathy.

Sometimes I begin a condolence card by noting that “although I did not know (insert person’s name), I am nonetheless saddened by your loss.” Such a letter need not be long – just heartfelt. So many mourners have expressed to me their appreciation for letters from other members of the community have written that they did not even know the author. One person noted that he reread these cards of sympathy and consolation many times during the year of mourning.

2. Call the Survivors on a Regular Basis.
We often forget that mourning is a long process. After pausing for a few days or a week to console our friends over their loss, we are quickly pulled back into the routine of our daily lives: work, school, our kids, our parents, our social life. This is normal and appropriate. Yet the mourners need almost a year to be able to walk forward with some semblance of confidence.

We support those who have lost loved ones by making a point of keeping in touch. Some people write a note in their calendars (datebooks, BlackBerrys) reminding them to call the survivors every few weeks (or at 2 weeks, 2 months, 4 months, 9 months, a year). We can say, “I have been thinking about (insert deceased’s name) and I was thinking about you, and I wanted to tell you a story I remembered about him/her.” Or perhaps “I was thinking about you and I was thinking about (insert deceased’s name), maybe you can tell me a story about (deceased) so together we can remember him/her.”

Nothing is more isolating than when people stop asking about the deceased. Some mourners have told me that they desperately wanted to recall their loved one, yet callers – afraid apparently that such recollections would cause pain – refrained from mentioning his/her name or asking about him/her. Although sometimes we can bring a mourner to tears, more often we provide a loving release from the pent-up sadness.

So Take a Chance.
When someone you know, or know about, loses a loved one, reach out. Send a condolence letter, and then check in in the weeks and months following the death.

You will be doing a mitzvah. You will be bringing them comfort. You may even be training them to reach out to you if and when you experience such a loss in your life in the future.

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