Sympathy Beyond Facebook

Cards, carnations and casseroles—that’s how we used to do sympathy. But, social media has changed everything. By now, anyone on Facebook has seen death notices by family, friends and acquaintances. These messages prompt us to reach out to each other—and we do. After posting about my own mother’s death over a year ago, I received hundreds of heartfelt sentiments on my wall. It was a little overwhelming, but, in the moment, much appreciated.

As the weeks passed, however, those electronic blips of kindness were forgotten. There were details to be settled, a memorial service and lunch to plan, accommodations and travel to be arranged. Like the February snow falling around me, the cold fact of Mom’s death settled in, and, with it, messy emotions. Grief is a hungry monster, and what I wanted (and found difficult to ask for) were practical expressions of support from my community. I’m lucky. After the initial tsunami of electronic sentiment, tangible signs of love eventually arrived.

There were the cards: carefully selected and handwritten, coming from friends, far off family, and, maybe most touching, acquaintances. I kept them in a stack on my desk, and in the months after Mom’s death, re-read them—proof that Mom mattered not only to me, but to others.

There was the cousin who hosted the funeral brunch at her club, paying the rental fee herself. A newer friend, who hadn’t known Mom, generously set up the food, served and cleaned up afterward. I was also blown away by the folks who came to the funeral: the work friend from 28 years ago who attended by herself; the estranged friend there anyway, because she knew and loved Mom; the entire choir my Dad once belonged to, who movingly sang the songs my mother requested.

And of course, I’ll never forget the friends and family who traveled from out of town to say goodbye to Mom—Cleveland, Florida, New Jersey, and Colorado. Their presence healed me—their thoughtfulness forever changing the way I respond to death. It makes me now want to be the one who shows up or helps out. And, when I can’t, send the card, bake brownies, or call—demonstrating the importance of their loved one.

The most moving correspondence I received was an Easter card from a cousin months after my mother’s death. She recounted how much Mom meant to her, signing off with, “My kids loved your mom too.” I kept that card and it still makes me cry.

What these expressions of sympathy have in common is that they are not reflexive, easy, nor (like a Facebook message) easily made, easily forgotten. In a very busy world, they require slowing down, thinking of another and taking concrete action.

It’s that lavish thoughtfulness during our darkest days that lets us know we’re not alone in our grief, and that our lives (and those we love) amount to something. For in the end, as a dear friend says, we are all just walking each other home. It sure helps to have some company on the way.