Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The box

In a corner of my spare bedroom there is a plain pine box. It is very unassuming and measures perhaps 20 x 12 x 10 inches.

The box contains the book of condolence from R's funeral, the obituary that his Dad put in the paper in his home town and all the cards and letters I received after his death.
For a month or more these kept on arriving. It was difficult to take in that we even knew so many people, let alone people whose lives he had really touched.

It was my morning ritual. When the post landed on the doormat I would go downstairs and sort. Cards and handwritten letters in one pile; junk mail, bills and R's correspondence in the other.

Then I would take the handwritten ones and go to sit on the stairs and read them. I read every one, and dutifully placed the cards on any flat surface I could find. People wrote some beautiful and moving messages, telling me their funny memories of R and how much they loved him, ending with a few words of support for me too. They were all so kind, thoughtful and loving.

But I hated them.
Every single one of those words of comfort gave the knife another little twist. I had to sit down because I couldn't stand up as I read them.

My sister-in-law watched me go through this ritual one morning, sitting there with an arm across my stomach in a vain attempt to ward off the physical pain it caused. She was shocked.

Like anyone she always wrote a letter or card when she learned of a death, hoping that her words would give some comfort. Indeed I always did the same myself. But I couldn't explain, probably because I didn't understand, why I found them so agonising. Certainly I didn't think it would have been better if they hadn't been sent at all, and I felt bad for finding it so hard to accept all those individual acts of kindness.

In the end we concluded that my reaction was possibly not typical and that it was always better to send a letter than not. The recipient could decide what to do with it, and wouldn't simply feel abandoned by the world.

I left the cards up around the house for a couple of weeks after they stopped arriving. Then I gathered them all up without looking inside, put them in the box with a few other items and stashed the box in the spare room where I couldn't see it any more.

I know I could never throw away the contents, but I do wonder whether I will ever be able to read those cards again.


  1. I have a similar box, though mine isn't nearly as nice as yours. I remember feeling so overwhelmed by every card, like they were salt on my open wound. Yet I was strangely sad when they stopped coming, like everyone else had moved on while I was still so raw and my heart was shattered. Yet they were so important because they let me know that an amazing number of people had been deeply affected by Austin and were saddened to hear of his death. But now, what to do with them. I agree that I could never get rid of them. Maybe one day, over a bottle of wine, I will be able to read them and really appreciate all that my love meant to so many people. Maybe one day.

  2. Still reading, still listening. I wished that the people who had taken the time and thought to write had invested that much time in offering practical help instead.

    A useful learning, which I have since applied a distressingly large number of times.

    I still have the box. Haven't looked in it recently, but it's there -- a treasure trove for the future, but as you imply, it was well paid for at the time.

    Best wishes from Houston, and spirits up.

  3. I've been going through a bad time of it recently and actually sat myself down to read through all the sympathy cards and letters one evening last week. Yes, it really hurt and I sat there sobbing, but I did gain some comfort in knowing that others knew just what Cliff meant to me. I find that they are a double-edged sword and wonder if they give more comfort to the sender than the receiver.

  4. can I just ask how Moose is? It's been on my mind!

  5. @ Debbie: It helps to know that someone else has a similar quandary. It makes me feel less ungrateful.

    @ Roads: I like the idea of a treasure trove for the future. That's a much better way to think of it.

    @ Boo: I'm so sorry you are having such a rough time at the moment. At times like this you need to take comfort where you can find it, even through the tears.
    Moose is doing amazingly well. The biopsy on the tumour came back all clear, the stitches came out on Monday and he is pretty much back to his old enthusiastic self. Thank you for asking.

  6. I too was wondering how Moose was doing. So glad to read that he's on the mend and doing so well already.
    Regarding cards -- I received very few. I did put up a post about my husband the day after his death and received many kind comments from people who knew him. I have gone back to reread them a couple of times during that last nine months. By the way, ours was an odd situation. My husband was also so healthy, then was diagnosed with a very aggressive cancer. Most of our friends and many members of his family actually avoided calling and we had few visitors as it seemed people were too uncomfortable to deal with his diagnosis. When he died, I think a lot of those people felt ashamed for not having been more supportive and were afraid to send me a note. I have since received a couple of emails from people who should have been there for him (a sister, for one), and that was their explanation. Anyhow, it wasn't that nice, but not all that strange to me as I noticed a similar thing when my dad was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Regarding the few cards I did receive, I put them away and haven't looked at them since.

  7. Oh Bev, I am so sorry to read about your loss and your experience of other people's reactions. I suddenly feel rather small and petty for my extended moan above.
    I think that people find it much easier to empathise with the shock of a quick, 'clean' death like R's - one moment he was here, the next he wasn't. They don't have to watch the slow degeneration of someone they love and, in so doing, confront their own fears about illness and death. Having watched my Dad and R's Mum die from leukaemia and stomach cancer respectively, I noticed the same response in many people - almost a shunning of the extended, 'messy' death followed by shame at their reaction. It does make you appreciate all the more those people who do overcome these feelings and offer support.

  8. J-in-Wales, I am so pleased Moose is getting better. We need our little companions to help us get through this.

    Bev - I too am sorry at the reaction that you received from people. I think it is sheer embarrassment that causes this, but it certainly doesn't help you. And you're right, it does make you appreciate the friends who really do come through for you. Take care.

  9. J - Please don't feel at all small and petty for writing about your reaction to the cards. These are all valid feelings that we're having. I'm sorry that you had to experience the way people reacted to your Dad's and MIL's illness and death. When my Dad and Don were ill, I used to read a lot of posts on cancer forums while doing research. The weird behaviour of friends and family is a pretty common topic for discussion, so I'm sure it's pretty universal. I agree -- it seems like many people don't want to have to face their fears about illness and death. It may be a sign of our times that people don't "do death" very well. As both you and Boo have commented, it's during just such a time that you discover which people you can really count on when the going gets tough. Take care.