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Jane Ahlin, Published February 15 2014

Ahlin: Our humanity depends on completing the task

The title caught my eye: “The Lost Art of the Condolence Letter.”

The article by Saul Austerlitz was done for a series of New York Times “Draft” essays on the art of writing. If the series sounds highfalutin, the essays are not. Covering anything pertaining to the breadth and scope of the written word – grammar, history, fiction, journalism, criticism, humor, translation, letters – every essay has its own notion of “why a well-crafted sentence matters more than ever in the digital age.” And the musings are surprisingly basic.

In this case, the subject is the age-old struggle we humans have to adequately say that which is difficult, perhaps impossible: In other words, how do we find something meaningful and comforting to put in a letter of sympathy when someone dies? Can we really “summarize a life? A friendship? What words can do justice to the entirety of a person?”

As Austerlitz put it, “We write condolence letters as a gesture of consideration, but also in order to figure out just what it is we have lost.” Maybe that is why he finds that each condolence letter “end[s] up taking about three hours to write.”

Having never written a note of sympathy that seemed any more than adequate, I understand his struggle. Writing and rewriting; writing and rewriting. One word can turn a perfectly good sentence into slop. (Oh, dear, that sounds too familiar; oh, dear, that sounds tinny. Good grief, that’s too, too cliché.) But I also know the calm and sense of integrity that comes from struggling through and finally putting the note into the envelope. What – if anything – it will mean to those on the receiving end is unpredictable. But the meaningfulness of writing the letter cannot be denied.

In his essay, Austerlitz assumes we all agree that in general “(t)he letter is a lost art,” the only exceptions, “the condolence letter … the thank you note … and the love letter.”

Although I agree letters have no cachet in an era defined by instant communication, his conclusions about the exceptions don’t entirely ring true. In fact, he paints a rosier picture of everyday communication than I would. My guess is that thank-you notes and love letters have been on the wane for a long time. For that matter, the health of the handwritten condolence card seems pretty iffy. Hallmark and its competitors do the heavy lifting; most of us just sign our names.

Tweets, instant messages and Facebook posts are acceptable shortcuts. A FB post reads, “My lovely mother lost her fight with cancer last night.” The post is followed by a hundred comments, all variations of, “So sorry, thinking of you.” Short, to be sure, but kind and, increasingly, all that is expected. Heavens, emails are the longhand letters of today. What bothers me in that trend is the thoughtlessness that propels it. Quick almost always is shallow. In truth, thinking – time-consuming, arduous thinking – is the only way to get to the thoughts that find words of meaning.

The time comes when death is intensely personal. Either the one who dies is close to our hearts and we share the grief of other friends and family, or those deeply affected by a death are dear. When that happens, there’s really no choice: Individuals important in our lives need to hear from us. So we sit down and wrestle with our thoughts and our desire to bring comfort until the nub of what we want to say is on paper. We breathe deeply because it is hard work; however, hidden somewhere in the recesses of our brains, we understand our own humanity depends upon completing the task.

Austerlitz calls the condolence note “an act of self-erasure.” Indeed, there is irony that the very thing bringing us close to the better human qualities in ourselves is appreciation for someone else’s life and compassion for the loved ones left behind. Disappearing into words, we find ourselves.


Ahlin writes a Sunday column for The Forum.