When is a sympathy card way out of line?
March 23, 2007 9:52 AM   Subscribe

Is this a bad idea? I just recently discovered that an old friend/boyfriend from high school has been arrested on a murder charge. I'd like to send a note to his family regarding my sympathy.

This is a fairly high-profile case and there has been a lot of press about it lately in both the local and national media. It's also pretty obvious that he's guilty. I haven't seen or spoken to the guy in years, but I feel compelled to contact him. I merely want to send a note saying "I'm sorry your life has turned out this way, my heart goes out to you and your family, etc".

Is this out of line?

My instinct is to do it, but on the other hand, he did kill someone. Justified or no, I'm appalled and horrified that someone I know and cared about at one time could do this. But, I also want to let him and his family know that they have my sympathy.

This guy was very important to me at one time, and I've thought about getting back in touch with him just to check in for many years. Sadly I never did and now I'm concerned that it's a morbid curiousity thing rather than real sympathy.
posted by teleri025 to Human Relations (41 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
now I'm concerned that it's a morbid curiousity thing rather than real sympathy.

Let's hope it's the former and that it answers your question.
posted by meerkatty at 10:01 AM on March 23, 2007


I think this is a bad idea. I really think that a note to someone who's committed a heinous act, saying, "I'm sorry your life has turned out this way," seems somewhat tactless. I'm not sure anyone in his situation would want to hear that particular message.

Also --- and more important, really --- you say he's been arrested on a murder charge, yet you assume he did it. If you are set on sending him a letter expressing your regret about how his life has turned out, at least let the justice system run its course before you assume anything about what he did.

Here's my proposal of a more appropriate message: "Dear X, I have seen your case on the news, and I just want you to know my thoughts are with you. Although we've lost touch over the years, I have not forgotten about you and I am sorry to hear about this situation. My thoughts will be with you in this difficult time."

Leave out all the stuff about, "I'm sorry your life turned out this way, " I just think that's rude.
posted by jayder at 10:03 AM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


Stay away. I'm sure his family has enough going on without receiving random cards from acquaintances of their son whom they haven't seen in a while. I'm just not sure how it's going to help them.

The only thing that would change my gut reaction would be if you were honestly really good friends with his family when you were seeing him, and that the card is clearly going to be addressed to the family, and wishing them the best, and only peripherally about the son/husband/murderer-guy. But even then, I think I'd say don't do it.

You haven't been in touch with these people in a while, and it's going to be clear that you're getting back in touch because you saw the stuff on the news. It's going to be hard to not come off as a morbid curiosity-seeker.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:04 AM on March 23, 2007


If I were the parents, the last thing I'd want to be reminded of is how people from the happy past have heard about this all the way across the country and this is the answer to their "whatever happened to..." question.
posted by DU at 10:04 AM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


If you were close to his family, I think it would be nice to send them a card letting them know that you care about them. I can't imagine a worse thing to go through for parents.

As for the guy himself, that's a tough one. Given the complexities of human interaction and relationships, however, I can understand why, in some rare cases, you might feel a pang of sympathy for a murderer.

But I'm having a hard time envisioning the proper Shoebox Greeting for this occasion...
posted by M.C. Lo-Carb! at 10:07 AM on March 23, 2007


While he's not guilty until he confesses or charges are proven in a court of law, you seem clear that he did kill someone. A note of sympathy is essentially a vote of support. Therefore, it seems it would be more appropriate to send a note to his family--not to him--expressing your sympathy.
posted by jamaro at 10:07 AM on March 23, 2007


If this is the case where the husband shot the teenager who was having an affair with his wife, send a card.

Otherwise, maybe not.
posted by konolia at 10:08 AM on March 23, 2007


If I were the parents, it would be a glimmer of relief to me that people from the happy past, having heard about this all the way across the country, still cared enough to let them know they were not all alone with this problem.
posted by beagle at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2007


i'll say a couple of things.

cards like this are usually in good taste, and are far more memorable than one would think they ought to be. i suppose that sending a card can also give the writer some closure, which is also tres bien.

beyond that, i think the use of the word sympathy in this context is just not well thought out. try to find a better way to express your feelings. hell, sit down and think more about what exactly are you feelings. if an old friend died in a car accident, or if he/she fell into an interminable coma, then yes, write a sympathy card. but a murderer? "my sympathies that you raised a killer. better luck next time"? hm.

if i were you, id probably want some closure. and i might even want to reach out. but i'd probably wait until some kind of conclusion was reached. probably after the sentence (if any) was passed. then, if i knew the parents weren't some glue-sniffing fucking yokels, i'd write a very carefully-worded letter expressing your condolensces on the matter and - if you want to dip into the world of compliments - something like "i hope for a speedy return of your son" (if he doesn't get life).
posted by phaedon at 10:09 AM on March 23, 2007


Before the whole pesky murder business, if you had thought to send his family a card saying, "Just thinking of you, hope you're well," would it have been weird at that time?

If not, and you still want to reach out to them now and say, "My thoughts are with you in what must be a difficult time," you could. (Definitely do not in any way mention the criminal investigation or jailtime or murder or crime or any of that unpleasantness. ) His family is probably being ostracized by the community and true caring thoughts would likely be appreciated.

But, realize that loads of people are coming out of the woodwork now, foul-weather friends compelled by trainwrecky fascination. There's a good chance they'll just lump you in with those people, and resent you as yet another person who could have reached out before their son went off and killed someone, but couldn't be bothered.

If you do it, the family will relay your thoughts to the suspect/your ex. You should leave it at that, and not contact him directly. That, unfortunately, smacks of lookie-loo morbidness, and "sorry your life turned out this way" is tacky.

Also, you'll need to write something on a blank notecard, if you decide to do this. You can't send a pre-printed Hallmark sympathy card, as those are really strictly for condolence on someone's passing. There has been a death in the family, but it sure ain't your ex-boyfriend's.
posted by pineapple at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2007


Konolia, it is.

I'm really torn about this. I was close to him and his mother and sisters at one time and they are all very sweet and nice people. It's just heartbreaking that this is where the situation ended up.

Thanks for the comments.
posted by teleri025 at 10:13 AM on March 23, 2007


Send the card. A person doesn't lose their humanity or their right to consideration the moment they murder someone-- that's just something that we have to tell ourselves in order to execute them.
posted by hermitosis at 10:16 AM on March 23, 2007


Reaching out to people in pain can never be a bad thing in my book.

"Compassion is not a popular virtue."

However, I wouldn't send a traditional sympathy card, because that seems inappropriate when there is another family getting those for the loss of their son.

Instead I would send a blank card with a general sentiment along the lines of "Thinking of your family in this difficult time and wishing the best for all of you."

Obviously, "the best" outcome for one member of "all of you" is not going to be good whatever you wish, but I would still take that approach.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:16 AM on March 23, 2007


does your friend live in knoxville?
posted by phaedon at 10:17 AM on March 23, 2007


phaedon, yes.
posted by teleri025 at 10:19 AM on March 23, 2007


Buy a card. Don't fill it out yet. Write a big long letter. Don't send it. Wait a week. If the card (not the letter) still wants to be sent, and the card still expresses how you feel once you've written the letter and sat with a while, then fill it out and send it. If the card still wants to be sent, but it doesn't fit quite right, buy a different card and wait another week.

Time will really help you out here.

Basically you've stirred up a big pot of muck. Let your feelings sort themselves out a bit before you act off the stuff that made it's way to the top.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:26 AM on March 23, 2007 [4 favorites]


teleri025: well i think you ask a reasonable question, given the developing circumstances of that case. my advice would be to wait until the case is over, or send something like today or tomorrow, before the case starts, just saying that your thoughts and prayers are with the family during this difficult time. (obviously, no card, im talking about writing a short letter.)
posted by phaedon at 10:26 AM on March 23, 2007


Oh, and good luck to you. This must be unbelievably strange, difficult, and confusing! I didn't mean to overlook that part.
posted by iamkimiam at 10:27 AM on March 23, 2007


Send a card. Let them know that you're thinking of them. Don't tell them that you're sad how their life has turned out, but do send a card.
posted by alms at 10:33 AM on March 23, 2007


I think a SHORT "thinking of you during this difficult time" note is perfectly appropriate for the family.

I would not directly contact the accused, as he has plenty on his plate right now, and simply no good can come of it. He would probably prefer NOONE be thinking of him right now.

Please don't say sympathy or condolences. Tacky.

Compassion is not a popular virtue

Also, I want to say that DarlingBri's response was perfect and she is my new net-crush.
posted by Ynoxas at 10:37 AM on March 23, 2007


One thing you should think about though is by writing your letter you will be opening a door to someone who has a looot of time to write you many, many letters in return. Are you really prepared for this level of involvement? Hard to say no once you open the door.
posted by xammerboy at 10:41 AM on March 23, 2007


I think a note to his family would be perfectly appropriate, considering what you've said. Just something simple about how you can't imagine how difficult this must be for them and you want them to know that your thoughts are with them.
posted by craichead at 10:41 AM on March 23, 2007


One thing you should think about though is by writing your letter you will be opening a door to someone who has a looot of time to write you many, many letters in return. Are you really prepared for this level of involvement? Hard to say no once you open the door.

xammerboy makes an excellent point. I wouldn't want to be the first old flame back in the picture after a mess like this.
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 10:45 AM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I was close to him and his mother and sisters at one time and they are all very sweet and nice people.

My mom is going through something very similar right now - a good friend and former employee of hers (from 15+ years ago) has been accused of child molestation in a fairly high profile way.

She agonized, and chose to send a short note to his wife saying, basically, "I'm thinking of you and your children daily, and am praying for you to have the strength to get through the difficult next few months." [The "I'm praying" part might not be appropriate for you, obviously, but it was very appropriate for the people involved.] She then went on to reminisce briefly about a trip our family and theirs had taken together to Mount Washington, and ended by saying that nothing would change the fond memories she had of those times.

About a week later, she got a call from the man's wife, thanking her for the card. Apparently, out of the many many people who could have taken the time to send a note of support, my mom was the *only* one who did so. Everyone else the family knew - friends, relations, friends of the (now adult) children, even her pastor, was basically treating them in one of two ways: either a) you don't exist or b) the problem doesn't exist and I'm going to ignore it.

Please send the card. Keep the note light and with as much love and support as you can muster. Try to include a memory of happier times -- try, if you can, to indicate that whatever this man has done, it hasn't changed your fond memories of the mother and siblings.

You're a good person for wanting to do this. Its not morbid at all - its very compassionate. Good luck.
posted by anastasiav at 10:51 AM on March 23, 2007 [10 favorites]


I agree 100% with anastasiav. Err on the side of compassion. Send it to the family. Our society tends to turn its back on the grieving and the awkward. The accused's family is grieving for their son and for the loss of promise. Rise above that by reaching out.
posted by Rumple at 11:00 AM on March 23, 2007


I can offer you advice from personal experience, although the situation is a bit different.

Long after we had gone our separate ways, my ex-wife committed murder. She received a life sentence in prison, and I thought it might be a good idea to write and let her know I was thinking of her..

She started writing me back, asking for smokes and money. After a few of those type of letters, I thought perhaps I should have left it well enough alone....
posted by bradth27 at 11:16 AM on March 23, 2007 [2 favorites]


When I find out a friend is a murderer is when I want to distance myself, not reach out. Whoever this person was to you when you were younger, he clearly isn't now. I'd vote for stay away.
posted by chairface at 12:12 PM on March 23, 2007


Lots of other people have given you great advice, I certainly think that a card to the family is more appropriate to a card to the accused. I can understand why you'd send him a card though - if you do, keep it brief and vague, certainly don't say "I'm sorry your life turned out this way".

Last year, the husband of a woman I worked with closely was murdered by her son (her husband's stepson). I'm not sure this has gone through court yet, but he confessed and was found at the scene. It was very sudden and brutal. I hasn't seen her for a couple of months, but I'd had dinner with her family and spent a lot of time with her. I felt like my reasons for wanting to get in touch were a little morbid and prurient, but then I thought about how alone people who've lost someone close often feel, and how many people just wouldn't know what to say to someone in a situation like this.

So I sent a very vague sympathy card that didn't really refer to either person she'd lost. I think I said something like "This must be a very difficult time for you, and I'm thinking of you and your family. I know how strong you can be, please take care of yourself. I'm thinking of you". I'm glad now that I sent something.
posted by crabintheocean at 12:28 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]



I want to fully third anastasiav's suggestion. If you are feeling inspired to reach out to them, do it.

But, realize that loads of people are coming out of the woodwork now, foul-weather friends compelled by trainwrecky fascination. There's a good chance they'll just lump you in with those people, and resent you as yet another person who could have reached out before their son went off and killed someone, but couldn't be bothered

In my own experience, this is not true at all. Like anastasiav's mother, my parents reached out to an old friend (one they had once been very close to but hadn't seen in years) when he was charged with a high profile crime. This man--and his totally blameless elderly mother--had not in fact been swamped by "foul weather friends." The opposite had happened...they had been completely shunned. Even though there WAS room for reasonable doubt in that case, no one they knew would have anything to do with them after he was charged. I think that the man AND his family--guilt by association, you know--are far more likely to become social pariahs then to be bothered by the morbidly curious. Reaching out to them is a very compassionate and noble thing to do.
posted by Ladysin at 1:00 PM on March 23, 2007


Nothing new to add, other than nthing that the family will most likely be incredibly touched that you took the time to let them know you thought of them. (The foul-weather friends don't send nice notes to the family, they sell their stories to gossip rages.)
posted by desuetude at 1:16 PM on March 23, 2007


Gossip rags, that is.
posted by desuetude at 1:20 PM on March 23, 2007


Send a card if you're concerned for his family. His mother and sisters are losing him from their lives in a manner that is emotionally and financially draining. In some ways this situation is worse for them than if he had died somehow because they have to move forward without him while being exposed to the ugliness of the police, press, and court system. Your old friend made some bad choices and hurt some people, but that shouldn't exclude him or his family from receiving any compassion.

So you know where I'm coming from, my brother is currently in prison for killing someone. Although it was obvious that he was guilty, he had friends from high school fly across the country to show their support. Neighbors brought my parents food and condolences. Whatever their reasons were, they came across as sincere and meant a lot to my parents who suffered as a result of my brother's actions. My email is in my profile if you want to know more.
posted by peeedro at 1:38 PM on March 23, 2007


what objective do you hope to accomplish? for whom are you doing this?
to borrow a line from one of my bosses of decades ago, i wouldn't touch this situation with a ten foot pole or an eleven foot swede.
posted by bruce at 1:52 PM on March 23, 2007


I was going to say no, leave it alone. But reading through the tread, I've been turned around. I think it would be a compassionate thing to do.

It might mean more to them if you wait a bit. Right now they are probably being bombarded by curiosity seekers (and sincere well-wishers, too). This, combined with shock, will probably distract them for a little while. But long after the news crews have left their driveway, and their lives go back to normal, they'll probably really need and appreciate your consideration. Or send a second card.
posted by necessitas at 2:05 PM on March 23, 2007


This is not snark -

Is sending a letter to him or the family about YOU or is it about THEM?

Just give it a thought...
posted by matty at 2:40 PM on March 23, 2007


When my mother was diagnosed with cancer, a former of teacher of mine sent her a card with something along the lines of, "you're in my thoughts during this difficult time". I think the same sentiment would be appreciated in this case.
posted by perpetualstroll at 2:50 PM on March 23, 2007


I can also offer you advice from personal experience, although the situation is a bit different. I have a distant family member who committed a murder. His family went through terrible hell. A compassionate note to the family would be appreciated; this sort of thing is a parent's worst nightmare in many ways.

If your distant ex is found guilty and goes to prison, there will be a lot of time for getting in touch if you feel that some sort of connection is necessary, but don't be surprised if it turns out like it did for bradth27. You didn't ask but one of the thigns that is difficult about communicating with people in prison that you are not close to is that your life moves on and theirs, in many ways, does not. However, human contact with people on the outside is often important. I wouldn't spend too much time thinking about that now, but you might want to just put it aside for later. For now, not getting back in touch with the subject of an active murder investigation is probably a prudent idea.
posted by jessamyn at 2:56 PM on March 23, 2007


"So you know where I'm coming from, my brother is currently in prison for killing someone. Although it was obvious that he was guilty, he had friends from high school fly across the country to show their support."

I have a second cousin who's in prison for life for murder. I can't compare my situation to peeedro's because I've only met my second cousin once (in prison). This was when I was a teen, and it didn't occur to me at the time nor has it occurred to me since then, to think that familial bonds aren't justification enough for me to be sympathetic to him in a way I never would with someone else and even though I don't doubt that he's guilty. My great uncle (not his father) visits him regularly, and I think that's a good thing.

I guess what I'm saying is that if you feel a human connection to this person then it's not necessarily the case that you should suddenly sever that connection (in your own mind) just because you believe he did something heinous. We often hear about clergy and others who befriend people on death row and, to me anyway, these seem like good people doing good things. (I'm not including those who are creepily fixated on inmates.) We (most of us) don't think there's anything wrong that these people are dealing with these murderers as people who also deserve some human respect and dignity and care and concern and empathy. So why, I ask, should family and friends feel at all that they should distance themselves from these people? Frankly, family and friends are going to be part of the few social resources they have left.

That's not to say that entangling yourself with this man would be a good idea. It seems to me that your decision about that should be the same as it would have been prior to this event and then with the consequences of how his life has changed on top of that. The result of that analysis for you might well be "stay away". That's fine. But that doesn't mean that some limited form of outreach and compassion from you isn't a good thing and, certainly, your impulse to it is no bad thing. Maybe you're just a compassionate person. That's a good instinct and almost always best to act upon.

Like everyone else, though, I would avoid anything that sounds like a judgmental pity. Either to him or to his family. "I'm sorry your life has turned out this way" really reeks of that. Something more like "my thoughts and hopes are with you and your family during these very difficult times" would be more appropriate and helpful.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 3:01 PM on March 23, 2007


Hell, even if he did kill the kid on purpose, he's no villain and he deserves your support. The family does, especially. Send the card. And some cash for the legal costs, if you can.
posted by solid-one-love at 3:05 PM on March 23, 2007


Absolutely send a card to the accused. Each of the criminals I know through my work as a criminal defense attorney has redeeming qualities and deserves humane treatment, if not compassion. I think Jayder came up with the best wording for a card:

"I have seen your case on the news, and I just want you to know my thoughts are with you. Although we've lost touch over the years, I have not forgotten about you and I am sorry to hear about this situation. My thoughts will be with you in this difficult time."

Send a card to the accused's family, too. Show your grace.
posted by kellygreen at 5:56 PM on March 23, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm surprised kellygreen's point of view has not been represented here more often. Even if your old friend did commit this heinous act, he is still a human being. Jayder's wording is quite nice I think, particularly as it subtly suggests that you are not exactly looking for a penpal here.
posted by Rock Steady at 5:56 AM on March 24, 2007


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