Everyone knows that the best place to buy greeting cards is at the car wash. Don’t ask me why, but as I stand there waiting for Sherwood Forester to get all sparkly and clean, I browse the card carousel like there’s no tomorrow.
Here’s the thing: the car wash has birthday cards, thank you cards, you’re a great friend cards, wedding cards, engagement cards, thinking of you cards, congratulations on your divorce cards, but no sympathy cards. And that’s a problem, because I am in need of some good sympathy cards.
Only once in my life have a found a great sympathy card, at an independent bookstore in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. The wife of a work colleague had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, and we found a card with a magnet attached that read “Oh sh*t” (except there was an “i” where the “*” is.) Evidently she loved it, and kept the magnet on her fridge until the day she succumbed to that cancer.
I have sympathy cards to send – to the family I never met of the friend who died; to the best friend of the friend who died; to my husband’s sister-in-law who lost her dad; to the widow of a former minister colleague in Milwaukee. Now some of those folks will be happy and comforted by a card with a beach sunset, or a bird flying against the sun, or a weeping willow. But in my own grief, I want to find a card with a Jolly Roger flag that reads “I am so sorry you are going through hell right now, and I wish I could be with you but I think you have to get through this hell without me because, to be truthful, the thought of experiencing a loss like that terrifies me. I’d rather walk the plank.” I might even throw in a good “aarrrrrrr.”
But Hallmark doesn’t make those cards.
And even once I find the card, then I have to figure out what to write. You have my deepest sympathy. You and your family are in my prayers. For the non-religious, I hold you in my heart. And here’s the other thing: there are words we’re not supposed to use in our notes, so “It totally sucks that your beloved died” becomes “The passing of your loved one is a grief beyond comprehension” or something else poorly written like that. Euphemisms play a big part in the sympathy card.
In seminary and in hospital chaplaincy training we were taught to use the words “die”, “death”, “dead”, and neither to beat around the bush nor hem and haw at the gates of the underworld. As a pastor, I feel differently about that, and sort of decide in the moment which word I am going to use – “died”, or “went to God”? “It sucks”, or “I can’t imagine your pain”?
Part of the problem is that I am a word person, and sometimes words don’t work. Sometimes they do – Mary Oliver’s poem “When Death Comes” comes to mind, as do the lyrics to that great old hymn “I’ll Fly Away.” But the words that I grasp for, in talking with someone or in writing the card, don’t come. I am not a poet, nor a lyricist. I’m a human being who will herself die one day, who is terrified of losing the people she loves, who really can’t make a 100% claim about the afterlife.
I guess, in the end, I’ll look for some blank cards with a beautiful picture, hoping the beauty might ease the soul. I’ll write something truthful and gentle, and I’ll keep it brief. I’ll put a stamp on the envelopes and put them in the mailbox. Then I’ll tell my beloveds that it’s time for dinner, and in making dinner, and saying grace, and telling stories about our day, I’ll let go of the worry of losing them for just a little bit, and hold fast to them in the time that I have.