The Art of Letter-Writing

With respect to the greeting card industry, I have never found a sympathy card that truly reflects my thoughts or feelings about the dearly departed. Sometime between the time I attended my first viewing and when a co-worker’s baby died, I realized I had a knack for expressing condolences in a personal, heartfelt way.

Teaching my class business communications sometimes feels like that proverbial salmon swimming upstream. The mainly twenty-somethings are so intent on texting, emailing and using whatever shorthand they can find, most have never written a heartfelt, handwritten note. When I was growing up, I went to Girl Scout camp. I wrote letters home; my mom wrote back (never my dad) and I remember a boyfriend who also wrote to me and I him. I still have a shoebox stashed in the attic with those handwritten missives.

The other night in class, I was telling the students what an art it is to receive a heartfelt note. While handwritten is best, it’s also a talent to be able to sit at the keyboard and write a letter that includes a memory, a story, or a moment in time that brings a smile to the reader’s face and maybe brightens their day.  Losing a co-worker to an accident or a business associate dying suddenly are examples of why you would have to write a letter of condolence. The looks on my students faces ranged from, “not me – I’ll never have to write THAT letter,” to a look of sheer terror – “WHAT would I EVER say?” I explained that again, you are writing to the reader. You want to make that person feel a little better, if only for the time it takes to read the few paragraphs.

I remember when two married co-workers lost their baby. He’d been sick from the moment he was born and fought for a while, but he died. While I was driving to work shortly before the baby’s death, for some reason I had to drive to work a different way. I remember seeing in the sky above the road a formation of clouds in a circle that seemed to create an opening. At that moment, I felt as though the baby was being called from above – for his suffering to end and he was walking into the heavens above. I wrote something like that to the parents in hopes that they could find some peace.

Maybe you remember a great joke the person told or how they had a fantastic laugh; maybe the person wasn’t so nice but had a terrific knack for organizing events or meetings. Tell the story you know in a brief and heartfelt way and the reader will appreciate your effort.

Meantime, I really wish people would get back to writing cards and letters. The U.S. Postal Service is billions of dollars in the red. Hardly anyone writes cards or letters anymore. The impersonal email has taken over. You barely get a printed birthday card anymore. People send those completely ridiculous e-cards. At the holidays, you may get a batch of greeting cards with a family’s yearly letter – we even send one. I’m wondering how long holiday cards will last and people resort to sending e-holiday greetings.

Perhaps you’ve never written a letter or sympathy card from scratch. You probably have those thoughts churning in your brain. The next time the occasion calls for it, think about pulling out a blank card or notepaper from the desk. You may have to dig deep in the back of a drawer, but I bet that note card is there. It’ll take you a few moments. The results will be straight from your heart – to the reader’s. Now, excuse me while I write to my nephew who’s looking for my next letter.

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