When I arrived at work this morning there was a card lying on the desk, it was a card in which people were encouraged to write in for a colleague whose sibling had died recently. We are a small company and often send out cards for the people who work with us though most are of birthdays, get well soon, and condolence cards. I have in the past struggled to know what to write in these cards. I don’t like to write the same as anybody else and I do want it to be meaningful and personal from me. As time goes on though, I learnt not to be so pedantic and base my messages on set phrases that if I can will enhance with appropriate extras, but if I don’t it doesn’t matter. As is often the case with me, making a decision is difficult and can lead to not writing anything so having a foundation formula helps me to start. The words are enough in themselves but can be extended if possible; task done.

For birthdays my starting phrase is usually something along the lines of “hope you have a fab day” with a standard extension of saying something about the next year. Get well soon cards usually carry the message “hope you find the time and space you need to get better” with a possible extension of empathising with the pain they are going through. For condolence cards my  focus will be acknowledging the death and hoping that they will take care of themselves with a possible extension of showing understanding through my own experience of death.

Whilst birthday cards seem easy for most people to write and send, I think illness and death are much trickier for some people. Is this because they remind us of our fragility and limited life span, something people prefer to push out of their minds? Perhaps, but I think stigma plays a part too. Mental health is not treated in the same way a physical health (when was the last time you sent a get well soon card to someone diagnosed with depression?), and contagious diseases can cause people to go out of their way to avoid you (colds being a classic example of this) even though in all likelihood they are already carry the bugs, the illness just hasn’t manifested itself yet (because you didn’t go through a stressful situation which reduced your immune response and allowed the bug to get a purchase perhaps).

Death is one of those subjects that doesn’t get mentioned everyday. I noticed when I wrote in the card “sorry to hear of your sibling’s death” that nobody else had been that blunt. There was “your news” in most people’s messages which seems rather vague to me, or is this a reflection over the media’s obsession of portraying “news” as “negative news” rather than being balanced by both positive (celebrations perhaps) and negative stuff (wars and crimes). I don’t think anybody would write “congratulations on your wonderful news” when a baby was born, would they?

Equally I get completely fed up with hearing “our thoughts and prayers are with you at this difficult time” spouted out by officials and representatives. It seems too impersonal to me, and for a literal person like myself, I find it hard to believe that that their mind and religious devotion is constantly focussed on the grieving people left to deal with the death. And how about some actual contact from the friends? How about going around and giving them a hug, sitting down and listening to them, or even taking them a hot meal? The awkwardness surrounding death and dying enables people to give excuses (my interpretation) for not visiting and to give the loved ones time and space to deal with grief in their own way. Even when grieving, us British are taught not to show our emotions for fear of upsetting others, but that is the flip side that perhaps isn’t needed here.

We humans need to process our grief, even socially awkward and clueless people like me. Next time you hear somebody you know has died, try reaching out to those left to deal with the grief in a way you would like to be treated. It I was sitting in the street crying, I would like somebody to sit beside me, perhaps touch my arm and be prepared for a wet hug back. If I was at home alone with my sorry, and warm meal would be most welcome. Words have little meaning to me, it’s the actions that count but that’s just my tuppence worth.