I have always been an extremely dutiful observer of the written social niceties. I write Christmas and holiday cards. I write bread-and-butter notes. I wrote my great-uncle in the nursing home, and my aunt in another nursing home, and my cousin in her retirement home, too. I keep in contact with various elderly people whom I know do not receive many letters or calls, and who often have few family members left, either.
Recently, some friends of mine suffered horrendous losses in their families. No way of putting it any more positively: these were unexpected and most miserably received deaths. In one case, I sent an immediate Facebook note, but the tragedy cut at me too deeply for me to want to say more. In another, I called and asked to send a card and was advised that the bereaved person couldn’t bear to receive them. This got me to thinking.
Then my own mother died, suddenly yet not unexpectedly, one day before her 96th birthday. The medical experts had not predicted a sudden end, only the beginning of the end. In other words, we had plenty of warning, and none. Many people sent condolences. Some sent e-mails, others sent Facebook notes, others sent greeting cards, still others wrote carefully composed notes. Then there were people who called, or who came to the funeral, or sent flowers or food, or who sang, or who stayed to clean up. (Did I miss anyone? If so, know your help was appreciated.) All of the outpourings of sympathy were welcome. All of them were appropriate. I want to thank all of these people, but I can’t bring myself to do it individually.
I’ve been thinking about why I have no urge whatsoever to write thank you notes to people who sent me condolences. I’ve decided that I am exhausted from the effort of holding myself together, as were my friends who suffered worse tragedies. This effort I must continue to maintain until my mother’s earthly affairs are completely settled. As her executrix (a word she loved), I am charged with the awful duty of going through her belongings, dealing with estate matters, arranging for the interment of her ashes in the family plot, and more. Over and over again, I have to make the calls and write the letters that tell the world she is dead, and her name must be taken off a mailing list she’s been on for seventy years—that of the Art Institute of Chicago, of which she was a life member, for instance. I am the one who has to contact her university alumni association, and various religious organizations, and charities, and so on. It’s an important role, and the final service I can render her other than to remember her. It’s also a task that pushes at my store of calm acceptance. I am not able to relax and comfort myself with the vision of my mother at peace in heaven, because daily I have to deal with the reality that she is not on earth anymore.
Does this sound too “poor little me”? Perhaps it is. This is how I am experiencing my grief, in little pecks and nips that sting, not in the open relief of tears and collapse. I have this job to do, you see, and I am grimly determined to do it promptly and carefully—and it sucks.
Although any and all of you who sent kind words may deserve or expect some acknowledgment of your efforts, I’m not sending thank you notes. If you are ever in the same position, I won’t expect them from you, either.