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.