Can I send a condolence card under these circumstances?
April 12, 2015 9:15 AM   Subscribe

I just found out that a colleague of mine from a while ago died suddenly. I'd like to send a condolence card to her brother, but I'm not sure it's appropriate. Snowflakes inside.

When I first started at my job around ten years ago, I made friends with a woman who I'll call Susan. We weren't really friends outside the office, but we got along really well and liked a lot of the same sightly offbeat things, would frequently sit in each other's offices chatting. I really liked her, and she helped me out a lot when I first started this job. However, she left very shortly after I started -- maybe three months or so. We said we'd try to keep in touch, but as so often happens, we didn't.

The other day, I was reading something Susan had written for work, and I wondered what she was doing now, so I checked her out on the attorney registration database. To my shock, she was listed as "deceased." After some googling, I found that she had died back in 2010, aged perhaps 50 or 51. The death notice said she had several siblings, including a brother who's a doctor not far from here.

I was shocked and sad to hear that she had died, and a bit surprised we hadn't heard, since the people in my workplace are fairly close knit and we tend to hear about deaths of anyone who worked here.

I'd really like to send the brother a condolence card telling him how much I liked Susan and how sorry I was to hear that she had died, but I'm thinking it would be a bit weird. After all, she died five years ago and I wasn't close to her, not really. However, maybe it would be nice for her brother to hear that she had touched some people she maybe didn't even realize she had, and that someone who knew her had been thinking about her some years after she died.

To add another wrinkle, the death notice said that Susan had died "suddenly," which can sometimes be code for a suicide. If that's so, I don't want to open up any wounds. (To be clear, I don't consider it any of my business at all how she died, and would not be writing to the brother to make some sort of subtle inquiry in that regard.)

So, would it be ok under these circumstances to send a short note to Susan's brother? If so, what would be appropriate or inappropriate to include in the note?

Thanks, everyone.
posted by holborne to Human Relations (21 answers total)
I think you missed the boat by five years. If I were the brother I'd think this is weird of you to do, so long after the fact.

I'm sorry for your loss.
posted by lizbunny at 9:27 AM on April 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

So, would it be ok under these circumstances to send a short note to Susan's brother?


If so, what would be appropriate or inappropriate to include in the note?

I think that your proposed goal ("I'd really like to send the brother a condolence card telling him how much I liked Susan and how sorry I was to hear that she had died... [M]aybe it would be nice for her brother to hear that she had touched some people she maybe didn't even realize she had, and that someone who knew her had been thinking about her some years after she died") is perfect, and that's really all you need to say.

Not to sound glib, but it's not like he's somehow forgotten that she's still dead and your card will remind him. That sort of loss doesn't go away, even if it gets integrated more into a person's daily life. I worked for years with bereaved people, including people dealing with bereavement after suicide, and I've always heard many many many more people complain about their community forgetting their deceased loved one rather than complain about people reminding them.

Your friend's brother could, of course, be an outlier (though if a nice note about his sister causes a breakdown, then that breakdown was likely going to happen about some other reminder of her, anyway), and nothing in life is guaranteed, but if it were me, I would send the note.
posted by jaguar at 9:27 AM on April 12, 2015 [28 favorites]

I'm of the camp of people who are comforted knowing the people I love have been loved and remembered by others. I think a short note saying you've just learned of Susan's passing and mentioning the memories above would be a nice thing to send.

Even five years on and she's not forgotten, even by someone she knew only briefly. That can mean a lot.
posted by phunniemee at 9:31 AM on April 12, 2015 [20 favorites]

Receiving such a message would mean the world to me. The thing that always gets to me about loved ones I've lost is that my memories with/of them are finite, and constantly atrophying. By sharing your story with your colleague's brother, you would be expanding the pie, so to speak, of the experiences he associates with her. That would be a gift. And I would give no thought to the time component — in my world, there's no statute of limitations on kindness.
posted by thejoshu at 9:36 AM on April 12, 2015 [25 favorites]

My bff, whose brother died by suicide, was immensely comforted to know he'd meant something to others. That, actually, was what she most wanted to hear. Send the note.
posted by cotton dress sock at 9:36 AM on April 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

My best friend died of suicide some months ago and I would appreciate this - knowing that his presence meant something to someone. It's not like I can forget such a thing, or that I expect everyone he met to be super close to him. Just knowing that there was someone else he effected would mean a lot.
posted by Aranquis at 9:42 AM on April 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

It might be a bit weird to send him, like, a Hallmark condolence cards after all this time, but a note expressing what Susan meant to you, perhaps how you regret losing contact, and your continuing best wishes for her family would be so sweet. My grandfather died in 2011 and I would love to get a note like that even from an acquaintance.
posted by muddgirl at 10:05 AM on April 12, 2015 [5 favorites]

Yes. I think this would be a great thing to do. You're not looking for attention or acknowledgement or trying to make out you were this person's best friend. You're just saying you knew this person for a short while once, you liked her, and you're sad to hear she's dead. I would love to think someone would do this for me one day.
posted by cincinnatus c at 10:07 AM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

What you want is to send a letter or a note on a plain, blank card, expressing your sentiments rather than a condolence card. Hallmark condolence cards are iffy at the usual time, and this is too far gone for their tone to be appropriate.

There is no statute of limitations on letting someone know that you liked someone they loved. Explain that you knew Susan through work and that you liked/admired/had your life touched by her and that you had recently been thinking of her fondly, and when you tried to reach out to her, found out she had died. I wouldn't get into the details of googling or anything like that, but the basic shell of your story is a comforting one -- there are other people out there who remember his loved one fondly.

It's not like he's forgotten his sister died. This is a way to provide one more pleasant memory about her.
posted by jacquilynne at 10:09 AM on April 12, 2015 [11 favorites]

My mom died more than 15 years ago, and I just got a card from someone who had known her a long time ago, and just found out that she was gone. The person explained how they had known my mom, shared an anecdote about how she had helped them, and said how sorry they were that she was no longer with us. It did bring a tear to my eye, but overall, I was very pleased to think that people out there still cared about her all these years later, and to learn about something she had done that I had no idea about.

I vote for sending the note. I agree, though, that it would have been weird to get a sympathy card, or a long letter, rather than a short note on a blank notecard, this far after her fact. Keep it simple and short.
posted by rpfields at 10:22 AM on April 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

I got a condolence card from a stranger who was friends with my mom a few years after she died. I thought it was very kind of her to take the time. Go for it.
posted by cecic at 10:27 AM on April 12, 2015 [3 favorites]

Definitely send the note. Anecdote: My grandmother died from Alzheimer's in 1994. At my uncle's funeral two years ago, my grandmother's primary caregiver from her nursing home got up and spoke about Nana. She knew my uncle, of course, as he was her primary contact, and she had recognized his name from the obituary in the paper. We were all sobbing while she spoke about Nana and how wonderful she was and how she just had to come and meet her family. She'd been dead for 20 years, but it was really touching to hear someone not from the family remember her so vividly. It was one of the most memorable things at the funeral, and we all knew that my uncle would have loved it. Remembering someone is never wrong.
posted by clone boulevard at 10:31 AM on April 12, 2015 [7 favorites]

I'm firmly in the camp of when in doubt, always send the note.
posted by mchorn at 12:08 PM on April 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm always moved when I run into someone who remembers my Dad, & he died 25 years ago. If my Mom or I received such a note now, we might tear up depending on the day, but overall would appreciate the sentiment & chance to learn something about him we did not know before. Send the note. I don't think it has to be a perfectly white piece of paper. A note card with something appropriate on the front & nothing other than your own personal sentiments inside is fine as well. The important thing is that his sister mattered to you & you cared enough to send him condolences. Also, I'm sorry for your loss. You are being very thoughtful about doing this very kind thing.
posted by katemcd at 12:59 PM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

My dad died suddenly (he was driving drunk) in 1987 and I would be really touched if I got a note or card expressing condolences right now. I was a little kid when it happened and it's not like I'm bawling my eyes out all the time, but I do think about him every day and it would be nice to know other people think of him still, too.
posted by masquesoporfavor at 2:39 PM on April 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

Totally do this. Most people will appreciate knowing that their loved one was liked and remembered.

I had a vaguely similar situation recently, where I was visiting my father's grave and happened upon the grave of a former colleague of his, who had died in 2000 at age 61. His son, D, and I were friends when we were very little. The father also helped me find a good neighborhood in NYC to live in a couple decades ago. I hadn't seen or communicated with him since then.

When I found his grave I immediately felt terrible for D, who had lost his mother when he was little (which is why we had abruptly stopped being friends as children; his father moved them away in his shock and grief). I wanted to reach out to D and express my condolences, but I thought maybe too much time had passed, and after all I didn't really know his father well.

But then I asked myself whether I would want someone to contact me with belated condolences about my father, and I definitely would. It's not like I'm ever going to forget my father's death and be unpleasantly reminded of it by someone giving their condolences; what a ridiculous idea. That wound can't be "reopened" by someone expressing that my father had value to them; if anything it will be salved a tiny bit.

So I found D on LinkedIn, and expressed myself as best I could through the character limit of the connection request. We've exchanged dozens of emails since then. I believe that writing about his dad and what he went through in life has probably been helpful for D. At least it certainly hasn't been harmful. And I'm glad to have been able to express how sorry I am about the father's young death and difficult life.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 5:34 PM on April 12, 2015 [1 favorite]

Just adding another voice to the chorus of "send the note." Even if it brings back the feeling of loss, it does so in the context of shared affection.
posted by bardophile at 8:53 PM on April 12, 2015

It's never too late. If I got a card from someone about any of my loved ones that had passed away, no matter how long ago, I would feel grateful. Knowing that they had touched another's life would bring happiness. I say, go for it!
posted by batonthefueltank at 9:27 PM on April 12, 2015

The smartest woman I know when it comes to people told me that it's never to late to say sorry or thank you. I think this fits in there somewhere. Do it.

If I got a note about my Dad who died years ago I'd be happy to know that someone took the time and cared enough to do so.
posted by cccorlew at 10:33 AM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

My mother died nearly 6 years ago, and I'm still occasionally confronted with the task of breaking the news to old acquaintances who ask "So, how iis your Mum?" I find that part quite upsetting, I must admit, because I end up having to deal with their shock and grief. This is a different situation, though, because with a note you aren't expecting anything fron this man, only offering your memories and condolences. I would love to get that kind of note. I think you shoukd send it.
posted by Cheese Monster at 5:43 PM on April 13, 2015

I love hearing from people who knew my step dad and he died 13 years ago.

Send the note.
posted by small_ruminant at 11:19 PM on April 13, 2015 [1 favorite]

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