The Lost Art of the Condolence Letter
By SAUL AUSTERLITZ
It was the summer of writing condolence notes. In the span of three weeks, two crushing losses: one a cherished friend, brutally taken by cancer, the other, a close friend’s father, dying in a freak accident. A few months later, another close friend’s father, after a long illness.
People today communicate with one another via Gmail and Twitter and Facebook with such efficiency that pen and paper feel impossibly archaic, like searching the Yellow Pages for a carrier-pigeon service to bear away our papyrus scroll. Words came easily to me, or at least easily enough that I could make my living packaging and repackaging them for the consumption of unknown others. This, however, was something else entirely.
The letter is a lost art, subsumed by the email and the text message, but the condolence letter trudges on, alongside the thank-you note and the love letter, remnants of an older time. A condolence letter is a formal enterprise, its content secondary to the physical act of its writing, the sealing of its envelope, its mailing. It is a product whose labor is intentionally visible. A condolence email — let alone a condolence text — cannot bear the same weight, however carefully crafted.
People would regularly ask me, when I told them I was a writer, whether I compiled outlines for my work before beginning to write. I would tell them, with a faint note of guilt at my lack of rigor, that I would use the process of writing to figure out what, precisely, it was that I wanted to say. Writing was not a matter of taking a prefabricated thought and setting it down on paper, but using the act of setting words down on paper to determine just what that thought might be. That system, which has generally served me well in my professional life, had never felt so threadbare, so woefully insufficient to the task at hand as facing the prospect of paying condolence. How do you summarize a life? A friendship? What words can do justice to the entirety of a person?
“He was some kind of a man,” Marlene Dietrich says as the body of her former lover, played by Orson Welles, drifts away, carried off by the tides, at the end of Welles’s film “Touch of Evil.” “What does it matter what you say about people?” It’s a great line, one of the most memorable in Welles’s classic noir, but obviously, flagrantly incorrect; it matters a great deal. I have kept just about every letter everyone has ever sent me. I have decade-old one-line emails from friends still saved on my hard drive. I am, to be sure, a completist, and an archivist with a touch of the fanatic. But when we are gone — as inevitably we all will be — all that will truly remain behind of us is our words.
We are taught to think of words as a pale imitation, running a distant second to actions, or deeds, or gestures, or anything corporeal. But death makes you think about what endures, and what doesn’t.
A condolence letter is a strange hybrid of forms. It is for the mourner, but about the deceased. It is formal, but emotional. It gestures simultaneously at the past, the present and the future. It seeks to provide solace while acknowledging that there is no genuine solace to be provided. It follows a rigorous order while retaining an open-ended flexibility. A condolence letter can be a sort of kindly rote gesture, striking all the familiar ritual notes, or it can be precisely what Dietrich refuses to provide in “Touch of Evil”: an attempt at a summation, or a farewell. We write condolence letters as a gesture of consideration, but also in order to figure out just what it is we have lost.
A good condolence letter requires balance, demanding an “I” capable of turning its attention away from itself, and toward a missing other. It is about what death requires of all of us who are left behind, and often finds us incapable of providing: compassion. A condolence letter is an act of self-erasure.
It is also an acknowledgment of failure. We provide comfort, but never enough; we pay tribute, but never fulsomely enough; we remember, but not deeply enough. We fail. We can only offer condolences, because we are unsure if they will be taken. All we can do is make the attempt.
My friend was irreplaceable, and her death left a jagged hole I will spend the rest of my life tiptoeing around the edges of. Writing about her loss — to her husband, now a widower, and her mother — was an opportunity to play geographer, and draw a map of the contours of our shared sorrow.
Being a writer, of course, means being competitive about writing. A condolence letter cannot just be one of many; it better be the best condolence letter of the bunch. This is a warped impulse; who writes a condolence letter in the hopes of getting good reviews? I do, as it turns out.
I write because I desperately need to communicate, and because I know that ultimately, I cannot. I write to remember, and to be remembered. The one desire emerges from the other.
Still, I do not know if the condolence letters I wrote helped the people I wrote to. I suspect they didn’t. The task was simply too large. But I felt momentarily better after finishing each condolence letter, not because I had any conviction of having provided genuine consolation, but because by setting down words on paper, I had preserved something ephemeral, endangered. Emotions were pinned to the page like rare butterflies, no longer flapping around indiscriminately, glimpsed only as they fluttered off, but preserved for future study.
Each condolence letter ended up taking about three hours to write. Trained by more than fifteen years of drafting everything on a computer, I found I could no longer compose without the benefit of a word-processing program to allow me to erase and cut and paste. The paper would be where I would copy the final product once it had been assembled. The cliché would be that the memories poured out, but they didn’t. They required being tweezed out, one at a time. Cliché would also state that the letters required no editing, but of course they did, and I found myself hunched over my computer in familiar fashion, shifting sentences around and removing stray words like I was on deadline, and my editor was breathing down my neck. The process of writing is always the same, whatever the subject, whomever the reader.
My words on those yellow sheets of paper, such as they are, may or may not suffice. I am not able to judge. But what I can incontrovertibly state is that they are private. They will not print on the page. That, too, is a condition of the condolence letter: they are for no one else. They stubbornly refuse to be read by others. They are as deeply personal as any communication between two people can possibly be.
Saul Austerlitz is the author of the forthcoming book “Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes from I Love Lucy to Community.”