I saw a childhood friend a few weeks ago whose fiance passed away in August after a horrible battle with cervical cancer. I’ve felt so much of what she’s feeling right now, but I have no idea what it’s like to be a partner’s primary caretaker for a year and a half, a uniquely painful labor of love that most 20-somethings don’t understand. Though our experiences differ, she’s asking a lot of the same questions I asked (and still ask): Why did such a wonderful person have to die? Why was the most important person in the world suddenly ripped away? How is it that life can be so cruel to the best of us yet seem to favor the worst of us? The simple answer to these questions is that there is no answer. Death is random and it doesn’t care if you have an infectious smile or a special way of making everyone feel valued or dreams of being a grandparent one day. It strikes at will and there’s no reasoning with it.
She did ask one question that I actually had an answer for: “How do I handle writing all the thank you cards?” I chuckled as I realized that I also had this question after John died and didn’t have anyone to answer it for me. So here’s my answer sourced directly from the depths of grief hell: Don’t.
When you lose someone, the first few weeks are a blur of texts, calls, cards, flowers, food, gifts, attention. For a while, I had a pile of cards full of words of encouragement from people that I did know and even more from people that I did not know. I also had a running list of people who I’d received gifts and flowers from, some of whom I also did not personally know. I was overwhelmed by people’s kindness and felt a nagging sense of obligation to make sure they knew I appreciated them, but I couldn’t bring myself to write any thank you cards. The dark cloud of grief superseded all else and before I knew it, months had passed and my blank thank you cards were collecting dust.
When my friend asked me about this, she mentioned that she had already addressed some of the envelopes, but didn’t know what to actually write in any of the blank cards. First, I was impressed that she had even gotten that far. Then I told her to burn them, and I really, really meant it. Burn. Them. In fact, if you’re reading this and you’re wondering how in the hell you’re supposed to summon the energy to thank people for being decent human beings when just getting out of bed is taxing enough, take your pile of blank thank you notes, toss them into a fire pit or somewhere else safe, and watch it all burn. If you don’t feel comfortable with fire, stick them in a paper shredder! Cut them into snowflake shapes! Cover them in magazine clippings! Do whatever you need to do to turn those utterly useless scraps of paper into a cathartic release. By the time you come up for air, you’ll be over that nagging feeling and won’t even remember who you wanted to thank for what. If there’s anyone out there expecting a thank you or acknowledgement for whatever perishables they sent while your entire world was crumbling around you, they were acting out of something other than genuine kindness. And we do not have time for anything other than genuine kindness! No we do not.
Something that people in deep grief often fall victim to is other people’s expectations. Well, all people all the time everywhere fall victim to this, but for some reason people have a lot of opinions on how broken people should act. You should be back at work by now, you should be acting more sad, you shouldn’t be crying yourself to sleep anymore, you should be dating again, you shouldn’t be dating yet, you should send those thank you cards, you should just get over it already, you shouldn’t move forward ever because what kind of person wants to love and be loved again?! Only a monster, obviously. The only things that you can control in the face of other people’s expectations of you are your expectations of yourself. And when everything hurts, the only things you should be doing are the things you know to be good and true for you and only you. Let everything else burn.