Condolences— 10 Years Later

Even the word feels clunky and uncomfortable. "Condolences." No wonder so many of us are at a loss when dealing with loss. The right words can be such a salve for raw, unabating pain. So why is our biggest goal simply to fill up a notecard or piece of stationery with enough words to get the whole exercise over with? The next time you put pen to paper to express your sympathy, focus on a simple story, recollections of a brief encounter, a loving or funny memory. You will find a grateful recipient at the final resting place of that correspondence.

I commemorated a sad milestone a few months ago. It was the 10th anniversary of my husband, Jay's death, which seems as inconceivable as I write this now as it did on that Saturday morning in January 1998. My daughters and I always remember the date in some small way. Whether it's just talking about their dad, looking at photographs, sending a helium balloon to rise nonchalantly toward heaven; each year the date stands out somehow. But this year was different. First of all, there is something especially significant about a decade. Second, it was the year I decided Ellie and Carrie, now ages 16 and 12, were old enough to read some of the hundreds of letters I received after Jay's death. Because of the public nature of my job, I received many letters from total strangers.

But I also asked those attending Jay's funeral to write the girls so they would at least get to know their father posthumously. A few years ago I tentatively dug into the boxes with a strange mix of curiosity and apprehension. The man I was dating at the time agreed to sort through and organize them with me. As I read letter after letter, tears flooding down my face, I told him it must have been one of the weirdest dates he'd ever had. "Not one of," he replied, slightly bemused. "THE weirdest." Three years later, on the anniversary that traditionally requires exchanging gifts of tin or aluminum (here's a roll of Reynolds Wrap, honey!)—I traced the narrative of a man's life in sympathy notes. We would have been married 19 years this June.

I picked four letters, and we read them at the dinner table. One was from a lawyer in Birmingham who, like my husband, had gone to Washington and Lee University. He had written a hilarious account of one of their football games and the role Jay's hairstyle had played. After Jay caught a pass and was running to the goal line, "Out of nowhere, a defender caught hold of that damn ponytail and pulled Jay down denying him a touchdown. All of us laughed so hard, we had to call a time out to gather ourselves." Another was from a lawyer who appeared with my husband when he provided legal analysis of the O. J. Simpson trial on FOX. He wrote about Jay's willingness to brief him about everything that day and laughed when the attorney had repeated one of Jay's observations on the air. He also told my daughters of the kindness Jay had shown his. She had some developmental issues, and also wrote a note that read in part, "Dear Miss Couric. I think your husband was a very nice man. The reason that I am writing you is that last year he signed his name in my autograph book as OJ Monahan and I thought you would get a kick out of that." My sister wrote several typed pages that began, eerily, with this: "Dear Ellie and Carrie, I am writing this on February 18, 1998 ... I assume that as you read this it is the year 2008 and you have grown into fine young ladies." She wrote about Jay's intervention when she and I had a fight because her two teenage sons and husband had eaten all the leftover Thanksgiving pies for breakfast the next day ... an incident we laughingly now refer to as "piegate." In the process of selecting the letters, I opened an entire series of tender and funny snapshots of a single life, recorded in sympathy cards, on Crane stationery and simple loose-leaf notebook paper. Some are from well-known names: John F. Kennedy Jr.'s neatly written, monogrammed JFK card expressing sympathy for "the far too early passing of your husband" and remembering Jay's mischievous twinkle and penchant for dressing up in period garb as a Civil War re-enactor. "Having gone through a few losses myself, the challenge is to find meaning in what has happened," he wrote. There are other letters, almost confessional in tone, from those who wanted to share similar experiences. Reading through many of them on this sad anniversary, I had a strange impulse to call or write the senders, and yet I know I never will. How is the warm and wonderful mother of two girls who had lost her husband, Tom, to colon cancer a year before Jay's death? What do the little girls in the photograph of the once happy nuclear family look like today? Her letter was so loving and intimate for someone I had never met. Is Jay's college friend still practicing law in Birmingham? Does he have any idea how I treasure his simple story of a college football game? Does Nancy Mathis, the local news reporter whom I competed against when we both were on the "night beat" in Washington, D.C., have any idea that 10 years later, her note recounting the night Jay picked me up on the Mall where we were covering a story to whisk me off to a Willie Nelson concert made me smile and remember?

These letters are a gift, in boxes and bundles still to be put in some orderly, sensible chronology. For me, they ignite memories that have long receded. For Ellie and Carrie, who were just 2 and 6 when their father died, reading about those moments from his childhood, college years and career, recounted through so many different prisms, will allow them to know Jay's life story. And, in this era of e-mail, long after the glue has worn off the envelopes, they will have that story at their fingertips, as well as tangible evidence of the love, care and effort that went into writing every one.