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Letters Of Condolence


Probably no branch of the epistolary art has ever given to friendly hearts so much perplexity as that which has to do with writing to friends in affliction. It is delightful to sit down and wish anybody joy; to overflow with congratulatory phrases over a favorable bit of news; to say how glad you are that your friend is engaged or married, or has inherited a fortune, has written a successful book, or has painted an immortal picture. Joy opens the closet of language, and the gems of expression are easily found; but the fountain of feeling being chilled by the uncongenial atmosphere of grief, by the sudden horror of death, or the more terrible breath of dishonor or shame, or even by the cold blast of undeserved misfortune, leaves the individual sympathizer in a mood of perplexity and of sadness which is of itself a most discouraging frame of mind for the indicting of a letter.

And yet we sympathize with our friend: we desire to tell him so. We want to say, "My friend, your grief is my grief; nothing can hurt you that does not hurt me. I cannot, of course, enter into all your feelings, but to stand by and see you hurt, and remain unmoved myself, is impossible." All this we wish to say; but how shall we say it that our words may not hurt him a great deal more than he is hurt already ? How shall we lay our hand so tenderly on that sore spot that we may not inflict a fresh wound? How can we say to a mother who bends over a fresh grave, that we regret the loss she has sustained in the death of her child ? Can language measure the depth, the height, the immensity, the bitterness of that grief ? What shall we say that is not trite and commonplace even unfeeling ? Shall we be pagan, and say that "whom the gods love die young," or Christian, and remark that "God does not willingly afflict the children of men?" She has thought of that, she has heard it, alas! often before but too often, as she thinks now.

Shall we tell her what she has lost how good, how loving, how brave, how admirable was the spirit which has just left the flesh ? Alas ! how well she knows that ! How her tears well up as she remembers the silent fortitude, the heroic patience under the pain that was to kill ! Shall we quote ancient philosophers and modern poets ? They have all dwelt at greater or less length upon death and the grave. Or shall we say, in simple and unpremeditated words, the thoughts which fill our own minds ?

The person who has to write this letter may be a ready writer, who finds fit expression at the point of his pen, and who overflows with the language of consolation such a one needs no advice; but to the hundreds who do need help we would say that the simplest expressions are the best. A distant friend, upon one of these occasions, wrote a letter as brief as brief might be, but of its kind altogether perfect. It ran thus: "I have heard of your great grief, and I send you a simple pressure of the hand." Coming from a gay and volatile person, it had for the mourner great consolation; pious quotations, and even the commonplaces of condolence, would have seemed forced. Undoubtedly those persons do us great good, or they wish to, who tell us to be resigned that we have deserved this affliction; that we suffer now, but that our present sufferings are nothing to what our future sufferings shall be; that we are only entering the portals of agony, and that every day will reveal to us the magnitude of our loss. Such is the formula which certain persons use, under the title of "letters of condolence." It is the wine mixed with gall which they gave our Lord to drink; and as He refused it, so may we. There are, no doubt, persons of a gloomy and a religious temperament combined who delight in such phrases; who quote the least consolatory of the texts of Scripture; who roll our grief as a sweet morsel under their tongues; who really envy the position of chief mourner as one of great dignity and considerable consequence; who consider crape and bombazine as a sort of royal mantle conferring distinction. There are many such people in the world. Dickens and Anthony Trollope have put them into novels solemn and ridiculous Malvolios; they exist in nature, in literature, and in art. It adds a new terror to death when we reflect that such persons will not fail to make it the occasion of letter-writing.

But those who write to us strongly and cheerfully, who do not dwell so much on our grief as on our remaining duties they are the people who help us. To advise a mourner to go out into the sun, to resume his work, to help the poor, and, above all, to carry on the efforts, to emulate the virtues of the deceased this is comfort. It is a very dear and consoling thing to a bereaved friend to hear the excellence of the departed extolled, to read and re-read all of the precious testimony which is borne by outsiders to the saintly life ended and there are few so hard-hearted as not to find something good to say of the dead: it is the impulse of human nature; it underlies all our philosophy and our religion; it is the "stretching out of a hand," and it comforts the afflicted. But what shall we say to those on whom disgrace has laid its heavy, defiling hand? Is it well to write to them at all? Shall we not be mistaken for those who prowl like jackals round a grave, and will not our motives be misunderstood ? Is not sympathy sometimes malice in disguise? Does not the phrase "I am so sorry for you!" sometimes sound like "I am so glad for myself?" Undoubtedly it does; but a sincere friend should not be restrained, through fear that his motive may be mistaken, from saying that he wishes to bear some part of the burden. Let him show that the unhappy man is in his thoughts, that he would like to help, that he would be glad to see him, or take him out, or send him a book, or at least write him a letter. Such a wish as this will hurt no one.

Philosophy some quaint and dry bit of old Seneca, or modern Rochefoucauld has often helped a struggling heart when disgrace, deserved or undeserved, has placed the soul in gyves of iron.

Sympathetic persons, of narrow minds and imperfect education, often have the gift of being able to say most consolatory things. Irish servants, for instance, rarely hurt the feelings of a mourner. They burst out in the language of Nature, and, if it is sometimes grotesque, it is almost always comforting. It is the educated and conscientious person who finds the writing of a letter of condolence difficult.

Perhaps much of our dread of death is the result of a false education, and the wearing of black may after all be a mistake. At the moment when we need bright colors, fresh flowers, sunshine, and beauty, we hide ourselves behind crape veils and make our garments heavy with ashes; but as it is conventional it is in one way a protection, and is therefore proper. No one feels like varying the expressions of a grief which has the Anglo-Saxon seriousness in it, the Scandinavian melancholy of a people from whom Nature hides herself behind a curtain of night. To the sunny and graceful Greek the road of the dead was the Via Felice; it was the happy way, the gate of flowers; the tombs were furnished as the houses were, with images of the beloved, and the veriest trifles which the deceased had loved. One wonders, as the tomb of a child is opened on the road out of Tanagra, near Athens, and the toys and hobby-horse and little shoes are found therein, if, after all, that father and mother were not wiser than we who, like Constance, "stuff out his vacant garments with his form." Is there not something quite unenlightened in the persistence with which we connect death with gloom?

Our correspondents often ask us when a letter of condolence should be written? As soon as possible. Do not be afraid to intrude on any grief, It is generally a welcome distraction; to even the most morbid mourner, to read a letter; and those who are So stunned by grief as not to be able to write or to read will always have some willing soul near them who will read and answer for them.

The afflicted, however, should never be expected to answer letters, They can and should receive the kindest and the most prompt that their friends can indite, Often a phrase on which the writer has built no hope may be the airy bridge over which the sorrowing soul returns slowly and blindly to peace and resignation. Who would miss the chance, be it one in ten thousand, of building such a bridge? Those who have suffered and been strong, those whom we love and respect, those who have the honest faith in human nature which enables them to read aright the riddle of this strange world, those who by faith walk over burning ploughshares and dread no evil, those are the people who write the best letters of condolence. They do not dwell on our grief, or exaggerate it, although they are evidently writing to us with a lump in the throat and a tear in the eye they do not say so, but we feel it. They tell us of the certain influence of time, which will change our present grief into our future joy. They say a few beautiful words of the friend whom we have lost, recount their own loss in him in a few fitting words of earnest sympathy which may carry consolation, if only by the wish of the writer. They beg of us to be patient. God has brought life and immortality to light through death, and to those whom "he has thought worthy to endure," this thought may ever form the basis of a letter of condolence.

"Give me," said the dying Herder, "a great thought, that I may console myself with that." It is a present of no mean value, a great thought; and if every letter of condolence could bear with it one broad phrase of honest sympathy it would be a blessed instrumentality for carrying patience and resignation, peace and comfort, into those dark places where the sufferer is eating his heart out with grief, or where Rachel "weeps for her children, and will not be comforted, because they are not."


Website: The History
Article Name: Letters Of Condolence
Researcher/Transcriber: Miriam Medina


 BIBLIOGRAPHY: Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood, Harper & Brothers-New York 1887
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