The Sting of Bereavement Cards

By Suzanne Leigh

When Natasha died, an avalanche of bereavement cards hit our mailbox within days. As the avalanche morphed into a trickle, I noticed a common theme in the cards: with few exceptions, they all featured pictures of delicate flowers or leaves and were artfully embellished with gold or silver. The accompanying text in flowery font typically conveyed “healing thoughts” and hopes that time would “offer comfort” during “this difficult period.” (Difficult?) Then the sender would add their own words. And that’s the challenge for those kind souls trying to reach out to parents who had lost a beloved child.

The truth is that many of those cards hurt more than they helped, through no fault of the sender. Seeing our three names with Natasha’s excluded was the initial dagger in the heart. Seeing the names of their own flourishing children listed at the bottom of the card made the dagger dig deeper. (Yes, of course Natasha’s name was excluded because that’s why they were sending the card, and adding their children’s names was a way of demonstrating that they, too, may have wanted to convey their sympathy, but newly bereaved parents are not at their most rational or magnanimous.)

‘In our thoughts and prayers’

And with many exceptions, the senders’ words sounded hurried, trite and clichéd. “We are so sorry to hear about the loss of Natasha. She is in our thoughts and prayers. Please call us if there is anything you need,” was the typical add-on message. (Yes, I need my daughter back.)

What would I have done had I been in a similar situation and lived in their world, a world where Natasha had bypassed the damning brain tumor diagnosis? I like to think I’d have written a meaningful letter, but maybe I, too, would have resorted to a Walgreens card with a picture of a lovely lily and scrawled “thinking of you” on the bottom. And perhaps I would have done nothing at all.

Among those cards that were most treasured were those sent by Natasha’s classmates. Their pictures were their own: some attempted Natasha’s portrait, others painted pictures of rainbows, stars and cats – things they knew she cherished. And some children recounted conversations they’d had with Natasha at school. Those lifted my heavy heart, because they provided me with a glimpse of Natasha at school; I never knew that persona and I was so happy to discover it.

‘You are not alone’

But as adults, we don’t usually labor over cards. That didn’t mean the cards that were not as creative weren’t helpful. One in particular hit the spot. It was a store-bought card from my friend Donna, who lost her son to brain tumor six years ago. “You are not alone,” she wrote.

As newly bereaved parents we feel profoundly sad, empty and alone. We ruminate.  Our memory bank flitters from innocent days gone by (was the tumor present, back then?) to the diagnosis, the re-diagnosis and ultimate decline to last dreadful breath. Knowing that other parents have trudged those treacherous roads helps a little. Not a lot. Nothing helps a lot. But “you are not alone” from one bereaved parent to another might be the most soothing words one can hope to hear.

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