Family & Friends

The Best Condolence Letter

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.


  • Helene

    I lost my husband, my best friend of 18 years, the light of my life, 11 months ago very suddenly in a boating accident. Thank you for sharing this article with the world. As a young widow I have many moments of feeling very alone, lost and unable to identify with others, all while raising our children and navigating CO-VID. Your words have brought me great resonance and relatedness. For that, I am sincerely grateful.

    • M Brimley

      I’m so sorry. The first year is….brutal. Especially having to live through 2020 with such grief. There’s not a lot I can offer except that it does get easier. Hang in there. And I’m glad my words can be of some comfort.

  • Erin

    I found your blog searching for information on being a widow. My husband has been diagnosed with incurable cancer. By the time we got this latest diagnoses he had been in treatment for nearly 18 months. Currently, he is ok. He can still play with the kids, work outdoors, on non chemo weeks.

    I am aware this isn’t going to end as I hoped. But reading your blog has helped me be a little less afraid of the future. And for that I am truly thankful.

    • M Brimley

      Erin – I’m so sorry. I actually wrote a piece that I’m putting out next week for people just like you, facing terrible diagnoses. Hang in there. These days are so hard, but it will be okay no matter how the future looks. I’ll be thinking of you.

      • Erin

        Thank you for your kind words. I try to remind myself that even given everything I am still lucky. I have a huge close knit family, an amazing group of friends and colleagues, we are financially stable. But I will admit it is getting harder and harder to find things to be grateful for, as this continues. I look forward to read it the piece when it is online.

  • Angie Bell

    I lost my husband of forty-one years in June. We were under contract to sell our house, return home to Florida to retire, when he got the diagnosis. Two months later he was gone. So here I am in Florida. But I have one or two cards like you described, from people who love me, and it helps.

    • M Brimley

      I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. It’s terrible to go through such a loss, but especially right now. Hang in there, and hold on to the pieces of comfort that you can.