What to do with condolence letters?

A few weeks ago a friend told me about a book called The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. It was a clever little book with lots of tidbits on things that make us happy- one of which was doing something that you have been putting off for a long time, like putting together scrapbooks. Each of my children has a baby book except for Sam, who is now eight years old. His book was my first priority. So, feeling inspired by The Happiness Project and knowing how great I would feel if I completed this nagging task that I had been putting off for years, I gathered the boxes of pictures that had been sitting on a bookshelf. Then I went into every room in the house and gathered the stragglers- the pictures the children had snagged from the boxes over the years. I put them all in the dining room and started sorting and filing just as The Happiness Project suggested. After a little while Sam and Eva came to hep. Jack moved his homework into the dining room and we all started going through the pictures.

One of the boxes contained the condolence letters that people had written to us when Josie died. I had not looked at these letters in over eight years. Eva, who is now twelve, started looking through some of them. She was three when Josie died and I don’t think she remembered much. I watched her as she read one and then another. I wanted to somehow casually take the letter from her without making a big deal. I didn’t want her to read them. I didn’t want her to know about all of that horrible, sad, grieving condolence letter stuff, but I didn’t take them away. I let her read. After reading a few she dumped them all out and put them in a neat pile, and then went outside to play basketball with Sam.
I picked up the letter she had placed on top of the pile and began reading. It was as if the piece of paper had come to life. The words threw me right back to those awful weeks and months. It all came back- that horrible feeling of loss and helplessness. I put the letter down and looked at the pile and then I looked over at the fire burning in the fireplace. I wanted to lay them one by one in the flames and be forever done with all of that sadness. I decided that before I destroyed the letters I needed to think about it first.
I’ve been thinking and pondering for the past week and I still don’t know what to do. I’ve even asked other people their thoughts on the subject. What happens to condolence letters? How long should we save them? A part of me wonders if it would be healthy to get rid of them, to close the door on that part of life. Why save something that brings back such sad memories? It’s not like they are photographs- snapshots into a life that once existed. Those I would never throw away. The letters are just pieces of paper with sad, depressing words- words I don’t want to read again.
But then a part of me thinks I should let them be, and I don’t know why. Would my children ever want to read them? Would their children? I don’t know. I decided I should ask my husband Tony. His response: “I never knew we still had them.” In his mind they had been tossed years ago. Hmmm, this seemed like more of a reason to get rid of them.
I needed to ask another mother who lost a child. My friend’s son died twenty years ago. She had kept the condolence letters in a box in the attic and never read them. Every few years, she would go to the box, take a handful out, and put them in the trash. Five minutes later, she would go back to the trash, pull them out and return them to the box in the attic. “I don’t know why I do that,” she said. “It just feels weird throwing them out.”
I’m still sort of wondering what to do. The letters are upstairs in the hallway waiting to be placed back in the attic for another eight years. Or perhaps they will go into the trash. The Happiness Project does say to get rid of clutter, but maybe clutter is not the right word here. The letters are a different type of clutter which I can’t quite explain. For now, I walk past the box of letters in the hallway and wonder what other people have done with theirs.


  1. Dear Jen, Thank you for sharing your thoughts with me. I am holding on to it all. I came close to throwing it all away a few months ago and then I wrote this blog. I am glad I held on to it and I appreciate all of the good advice. You are right. It is part of the history of a family. My best to you and thank you again. sorrel

  2. Sorrel,
    It was great to have lunch with you yesterday at St. Jude before you spoke.
    In you, I also see myself. Even though Josie and Nick died in different ways, we are both bereaved moms who now have Josie and Nick shaped holes in our hearts forever that no one or nothing else can fill.
    I, like you, am always evaluating why I am doing what I am doing at St. Jude. Everytime the answer comes back…to help other parents who have lost or are going to lose a child and experience that same gaping hole. Maybe, in some small way, I might be a part of bearing some part of their burden of grief so that they can bear it until they are able to stand on their own two feet again.
    We, too, have several big boxes of condolence cards and letters five years later and we don't know what to do with them. However, early on in our grief, my husband and I decided on a rule for ourselves. If anything comes up and we don't know what to do about it, we will do nothing until we can decide. Then we leave it alone. I suspect that the boxes of cards will be around for awhile. I do feel like I need to see them at least one more time but I haven't even had the courage to open the boxes up yet.
    Thank you for choosing to use Josie's life, her death, and your loss to make the world a better place for others.

    Wendy Avery

  3. I'm a teacher at a national college in bristol,tn, and i teach pharmacy technician classes, and in all of my classes I share josies story, and show them the "remaking american medicine" documentary. I know people are driven to tears by this story but maybe they will think to communicate better with patients when they get out in the workforce.
    Heather W.

  4. When I read your words it seems as if you were struggling with the meaning of those letters rather than the letters themselves. I think you want to get rid of them but like you said "they are other kind of cluster" they seem to represent that grief and seems like if you feel guilty of leaving those things behind. But I think it's ok. Josie will be in your memory and in your heart all you life. Also the good things that you and your husband made out of this horrible experience. You'll never forget her or the feelings you felt with her loss, but maybe getting rid of the letters will help you move forward in a healthier way.

  5. My mother passed away 2 years ago, after a successful cardio thoracic tumor removal, Only to pass away a month later at the nursing home doing her rehab. Her doctor said no autopsy is necessary even though, the nursing home claimed she died sitting down in the toilet seat like shes resting on it. Massive heart attack was the diagnosis. She did not have a heart condition. I just saw her and left her at 630pm, by 930pm i received the call that she passed away.
    Today I attended our Steps class @NMCSD Hospital in Balboa SD CA. I almost walked out after hearing about what happened to Josie.You did everything right, and in the end, mistakes was stil made. Just like you, being in the healthcare profession. I was very proactive with my moms health care. It brought all those memories back when I heard your speech.
    I have a box of condolence cards that I cannot seem to throw away. To be honest I have not read most of them. Maybe its just a reminder for us that they are remembered not only by us the people who loved them, but by people who knew and heard what happened. She will be a reminder for me, Never again.