I learned last week that a friend’s mother has cancer. She is quite elderly and the prognosis is not good. I was told of her illness via a text message and I expressed my sorrow for her and my friend by text, too. With that exchange, I started thinking about the ways in my lifetime we learned of deaths and our customs for delivering our condolences.
When I was young, people would place a wreath on the front door of the deceased’s house to signal that the residents of the home were in mourning. I remember my father wearing a black band on his coat sleeve when his father died. At the end of 7th grade, my friend Libby moved to Laos with her diplomat father and French mother and grandmother. Several months after they left, I received a stiff card, bordered in black, printed in French, that announced her grandmother’s death. The Philadelphia Inquirer called us when my father died to get details for his obituary. I subscribe to a magazine that includes brief articles on the passing of women who have been active in — and loved by — their communities. Over the years, I have received word of family, friends, and acquaintances passing by personal visits, letters, telegrams, phone calls, and emails. I see memorial messages on Facebook now.
In the past, when I heard of a death in my community, I went to the family’s home or wrote a note or sent a sympathy card. I’ve made phone calls, brought casseroles, written eulogies, boarded pets, attended wakes, viewings, visitations, funerals, and celebrations of life.
I thought when I began to consider this subject that I might fall into the notion that there are right ways to honor death; and that our modern, technological ways are not the right ways. My grandmother might have thought that a telephone call or a printed sympathy card was unfeeling and inappropriate. My mother was even more Victorian than her mother, and I am sure that text and Facebook condolences would have appalled her.
But I believe that however we learn of someone’s passing, and however we acknowledge and commemorate it, the support we bring with our attention, affection, and assistance is what matters. Not the manner of our communication, but the message that we care and that our world has dimmed a bit by the loss.