Q. My husband died a few months ago, and I've got a pile of sympathy cards and notes to respond to, not to mention messages posted on the funeral home website and elsewhere online. He knew a lot of people. Do I have to write to everyone, and how much time do I have to do it? I feel overwhelmed.
Responding to expressions of sympathy has always been a monumental task for widows. It's hard enough to put one foot in front of the other when you're grieving, without facing an avalanche of acknowledgments. But something new has been added in the Internet age: email condolences and online messages on websites, which can vastly increase the number of people responding to your loss.
What to do? Recognize two things: First, not all condolences are created equal. You do have to respond in many cases, but not in all. Second, you can take all the time you need emotionally – even months and months. Nobody is sitting there waiting for your acknowledgment, and it's most important to take care of yourself. Grief is debilitating.
Realize that there is a "hierarchy" of acknowledgments. Online messages on websites don't require a formal response, nor do email condolences. If you happen to meet the person, you can verbally thank him/her for the support if you wish. Printed condolence cards with merely a signature or a one liner such as "Thinking of you at this sad time," don't require acknowledgment either. However, personally written condolence notes are different. You can buy printed acknowledgment cards in stationery stores and add a handwritten line, such as "Your support has meant so much to me." Or write a note on your own correspondence card or note paper.
Send acknowledgments, as well, to people who have sent tangible items like flowers or food platters, made donations to charities or causes in your husband's memory—or who have been there for you above and beyond the call of duty during and/or after the funeral. You might want to put these people at the top of the list when you tackle the writing task.
"I thought it would never end," recalls one widow, who forced herself to write at least four or five acknowledgments every day. Of course, another option is to ask for help from a friend or family member. Sharing the job lightens the load.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is a freelance journalist,author — and a widow herself. Her books include My Deepest Sympathies, When the Man You Love Is Ill,What Do You Say When and Just a Note to Say...The Perfect Words for Every Occasion.