I got a lot of letters when Shawn died. Mostly, they were letters with photos of flowers on the front (why are there always flowers on sympathy cards?) and a short note inside saying something like, “We were so sorry to hear about Shawn’s passing. Our thoughts and prayers go out to you and the kids.”
I appreciated these notes, at least in theory, but mostly I just tossed them into a drawer and forgot about them. I was thankful that people sent them and I really loved the cards where my friends and family recounted memories they had of Shawn. I saved a lot of them for the kids. But if you asked me today what was written inside any of them, I probably couldn’t remember.
Except one. Almost three years later, there is a card that is still clear in my mind. It came from my cousin Ellen. In it, she wrote that she was terribly sad about Shawn’s death, and that she had so many great memories of him. She told me that our extended family loved me and was going to help me right now and forever. She told me that she loved me.
But she didn’t stop there. Instead of platitudes, she wrote this:
Marjorie, you were always my favorite. When we were little, you were the cousin who made sure that everyone was included and you made up the best games for us to play. When we grew up, you were always the one who asked about my life and the one I wanted to sneak away with on a fun shopping trip. You were joyful when things were joyful and you were thoughtful and determined when things were hard. You made me feel happy when we were together.
You are still that same person. I know you probably feel really alone, but you aren’t. You have all of our family and the community you’ve built in DC. And all of the people who surround you know who you are and who you have always been. We know that you are funny and kind and honest and also going through something really terrible. We will be here for you, now and always.
I looked at this letter all the time in the early days of widowhood. I looked at it when I was at my worst and most desperate moments, and I looked at it when I knew I had to face a day that I wasn’t sure I could face. I looked at it and would read that line, “you were always my favorite” and I would feel just a little bit better. I would feel just a little bit more like I could handle what was in front of me.
Because what that letter did was remind me of who I was when I honestly couldn’t remember myself. Of course, I was never a perfect person – that’s silly – but Ellen’s letter wasn’t about that. She wasn’t trying to say that everything was going to be smooth and that I was some sort of person who wasn’t going to struggle. Rather, she saw that things were really hard for me, and that I might be able to better cope with it all by remembering all of the good things about myself. Somehow she knew that it would be important to remind me of these things, especially when I was so lost that I felt like a stranger to myself.
“You are still that same person,” she said, and she was right. Of course I had changed and would remain changed for the rest of my life. But Ellen told me that the core of who I was – the good parts of who I was – were still there, under it all.
Ellen had known me my entire life. She had seen me through my mom’s illness and death, my wedding and hers, the births of our children and then Shawn’s death. So she could look at what I was facing and she could say, “I know you.” Her letter reminded me that I was still Marjorie even in those moments – and there were many – when I didn’t know myself.
It’s not a letter everyone can write to a grieving family member or friend. But it was the best one I got from anyone who was close to me. It was the best one because it wasn’t all about what I had lost.
It was also about who I was. And who I would always be.