Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Thank You Notes

When I was a little kid, my parents insisted that we send thank you notes.  Most of my aunts and uncles lived out of town, so when they would send Christmas or birthday gifts, they weren't there to thank in person.  And we would have to sit down and write thank you notes.  As a kid, I always dreaded doing it even though it was never so bad once I got started.

As I got older, I actually liked writing thank you notes.  I'm still a big fan of hand written correspondence (even though I don't practice it all that often) and I liked taking the time to write out my appreciation for people who had taken their time to think of me.  After David and I got married, I wrote almost all of our wedding gift thank you notes myself (while watching TV and drinking wine, sure, but my penmanship is pretty good when I'm buzzed).  I like the little process of using a favorite pen and sealing the envelope and sticking on a cute stamp.  I still think the postal service is kind of a marvel and it amazes me that you can pay a relatively small sum to send almost any object anywhere in the world.

In fact, I kind of pride myself on sending thank you notes if I receive a gift and I cannot thank the giver in person.  I choose cute stationary and I send notes in a timely fashion.  It's like a throwback to the simple etiquette of the nineteenth century, when people wore gloves and left calling cards, and the Victorian part of me really enjoys that little ritual (the note writing, I mean.  I'm not in the habit of wearing gloves and leaving calling cards.  Although I'm not ruling it out entirely...).

To tell the truth, I was also kind of judgy about thank you notes.  If I didn't receive one for a wedding gift I'd give, I thought that was "super tacky."  But mostly I was more interested in sending than receiving them. 

I had two baby showers before Eliza died.  I'd ordered cute baby duck stationary from Etsy and I'd just mailed the last of the thank you notes two days before I went into labor (six days after the shower).  It was fun.  I loved going down the list of useful and adorable things we'd been given, imagining Eliza dressed up in all her cute clothes, or wrapped up in her swaddling blankets, or listening as we read from one of her many books.  I remember writing, I can't wait for you to meet Baby Duck!  in a thank you note to one of my cousins.

from Bumblebee Press

And then it all fell apart.

Our baby was dead and all of those gifts got put away and suddenly we weren't celebrating a new life, we were figuring out how to keep living with this great emptiness inside us.

And while I sat on my couch and alternated my time between staring into space and fits of wailing and sobbing, many people did really nice things for us.  Dropped off casseroles and lasagnas and soups.  Sent over veggie trays and edible fruit arrangements.  Had lovely flowers and plants delivered.  Made thoughtful donations in Eliza's name to scholarship funds, the Methodist church, the March of Dimes, children's hospitals, a program for bereaved parents at our hospital, the National Share Organization, and other charities like Blessings in a Backpack.  Sympathy cards stacked up in our mailbox everyday for weeks and I sobbed gratefully over each one.  People sent us angel figurines and books and personalized Christmas ornaments.  It was overwhelming and such a great thing to feel surrounded by the love of people who care about us and about Eliza.

My friend Monica kept a list for me, of who gave what, just as she'd done at my baby shower two weeks earlier.  I knew that eventually I would want to send notes, thanking everyone who had been so kind and thoughtful.

But I never sent a single thank you note.

I am thankful.  I'm incredibly grateful to everyone who sent a gift, or made a donation, or stopped by the house, or mailed a card, or uttered a prayer.   I can think of no greater gift you could give us than to do something good in memory of Eliza, and then tell us about it and write or speak her name.

I should make sure to send a note to everyone who did that.

I keep thinking even now that it's not too late.  I want to tell people how much I appreciate it all they did for us.  Obviously I am capable of expressing myself in words, and I want to tell people who reached out to us that the darkest time in my life would have been even worse if I hadn't heard from them.

But I can't bring myself to do it.  It's not the tedium of the chore, it's the emotional exhaustion I feel when I even begin to contemplate doing it.  It's just too hard.  I don't want to do it.  I just don't want to.  I bought cards to send.  The package is still unopened.

I feel terrible about it because maybe it's tacky not to send notes and I don't want anything associated with Eliza to be tacky.  And I feel terrible about it because in some ways the donations that people sent after her death were even more significant than the gifts we received before she died.  The donations told us that she still mattered and that her life was meaningful, that she was loved and wanted and missed and that her memory was honored by people who cared about us.  Nothing could have been more comforting in those days (or now, really) than to know that other people were thinking about her and typing or writing her name.  I want people to know that it made a difference to me, I want them to know that it is so important to make that effort to buy a stamp and send a card and that the donation they made in Eliza's name was truly an honor to my baby's life.

My mom said that people don't expect thank you notes for this kind of thing, and I know that even the judgy part of me wouldn't care if someone failed to acknowledge a gift when they were in mourning.  But I've gotten thank you notes from grieving people acknowledging donations I've made in honor of their loved one and it makes me feel guilty that there were so many people I never thanked. 

I'd like to say that I'll do it someday, but I know that's not true. 

I don't want to write cards that try to strike a balance between sounding hopeful and sounding sad.  I don't want to figure out a way to say "we're doing okay but our new definition of okay is shittier than I would have ever dreamed possible for still fitting into the realm of okay."  I don't want to make it sound as though I'm still in the not-eating, not-sleeping, barely-existing phase of December, but I don't know how to adequately explain where I am now in a few handwritten lines in a thank you card.  And I know a thank you card doesn't require all of that--I could just say, "Thank you for your donation to ____ in memory of our Eliza.  It meant so much to us."  I just feel like that doesn't even begin to cover it--how much it meant, how much we love her, how much we still can't believe that this is our life and it doesn't have our baby girl in it.

Maybe I'm expecting too much from a thank you note.

Maybe I just know that writing every single one would make me cry, no matter what I put down on paper.

The fact is that I am eternally grateful to everyone who reached out to us.  But I still don't know whether I'll ever send this set of thank you notes.


  1. wow, so much of this post hit home for me. i am very much a thank you carder myself. and for the same reason. my mom would always make us right thank you cards and regular cards to our relatives that lived far away (which pretty much all did). and i carry on with that tradition today.

    after Julius passed away we received such an outpouring of support it was insane. and a friend helped me keep a list of what people got us. the 1st few weeks i was pretty much against ever writing thank you cards. not b/c i wasn't thankful. but b/c there's just no way to go about expressing your gratitude for kindness shown you after your child's death without bawling or getting choked up. without thinking about what life would be like if you didn't have to write those damn cards.

    o, and we got this terrible set of generic thank you cards from the funeral home, which i completely loathed. they were just so cold, and plain. so i had decided that i was not going to write cards at all. and i was hoping that everyone would understand.

    well, a few wks past, and i started getting some of my "strength" back. and i decided that i might want to try and tackle the task of writing cards. so i went out to target and picked up a box of really cute thank you cards. and started writing them out little by little.

    for some reason it brought me a little bit of comfort to write those cards. to mark another project off of my list. and eventually i started using the terrible box of cards. and i was able to just write a simple couple of sentences about how much it meant to us to receive whatever act of kindness it was that people showed us. and i didn't bawl, or have a sobfest. it was actually healing for me.

    of course everyone is different. but again, the most important thing is that you honor your grief. if it brings you stress to even think about writing those cards - don't. maybe some people don't expect a card, maybe some people are judging you. so what. this is a very traumatic time in your life, most likely your lowest point (and i truly hope that you experience no other low points in your life my friend). i think people will be ok without a card. the only thing that matters is that you take time to "heal."

    sending you love...

  2. Hi brooke. I came across your blog through another BLM's blog, Angela. As an English major myself and having lost my son Liam in April 2010 (preterm labor/IC), I assumed that I would relate to you.

    I'm so so sorry that you now have a blog and for your dear, sweet Eliza. It's a shitty shitty club to be in and I hate it that anyone ever "joins" it. That being said, I just passed his 1 year anniversary and I could've written a post just like this 1-5 months after he was born.

    I bought thank-you cards for the purpose of showing how much I appreciated all of the big and small things people did for us. Any gesture mattered so much to me (even though I remember sobbing, getting another batch of flowers delivered, saying that everyone should be buying me baby shower gifts, not bereavement gifts. I bought gifts for them when they all welcomed their expected child and all that I got was some flowers....it's such a confusing time and emotions). Anyway, in the end, I sent two cards to two friends who sent me jewelry with his name on it. And I cried the entire time I was writing and afterward for some time. Even though months had passed by that point, it was incredibly painful. I know that I could've pushed and written more, but I didn't. I just stopped and while I know that I beat myself up for it, I also beat myself up for the fact that my baby died (even though it's not my fault but that's where I went with it all). Now I look back and I'm proud that I survived that time because it's the worst.

    As the other poster said, this is the most traumatic time in your life and that's all that needs to be said. Send a group email or ask your mother to relay thank-yous for the sake of some gratitude but don't force yourself into more pain. It's just not worth it.

    Take care.


  3. You do what you can Brooke.. an nothing more. When Cullen died the English major in me had his precious footprints scanned and them made into a jpeg by my print designer. She then printed them on all of his stationery including his birth announcement, his notecards and his thank you cards. It was absolutely beautiful.. she did the most amazing job I could have imagined. It took me months to eventually work myself up to writing them out. I kept them very brief (except to those with whom we are very close) and just kept writing the same lines on each and every card.

  4. Second post...
    There are still a few cards I did not finish (I did not have addresses) and though I have them now, for some reason I can't get myself back to that place where I can d it again.
    My point is that if you get there you will know it, and if you don't no one worth concerning yourself with will ever think less of you.
    Do what you can mamma....
    love and light...

  5. Sorry I had to split my responses.. for some reason blogger will only let me give short responses, when I do longer ones it will not post them. Not sure how to fix that, but I'll look into it...

  6. only have a moment before breaktime is over and i want to tell you that a.) im still here, hi and *hugs* and b.) i found it easier to buy the thank you cards that were pre-stamped with a beautiful message from the funeral home. that way, most of the card was already taken up by text, and i could write something short on the (already tiny) inner flap, but for most, squeezing my and my husband's name on the bottom, addressing the envelopes and sending were really as close as i could get to effort.
    im not saying YOU SHOULD do this. im saying it sounds like you want to, and this may be a way to show people your appreciation for their tribute to Eliza lives on.

  7. There were lots of thank you notes I wanted to send and never managed to write. I've been surprised and grateful that people have been so understanding and kind about it. Maybe I should send them thank you notes for that!

    I love the baby duck stationary, and it hurts my heart that your baby duck isn't there with you while you use it up.

  8. Yep. That's pretty much me agreeing with everything you wrote.

    I sent a condolence card to a former student and his mother after the passing of his father/her husband.

    She wrote one back less than a week later and a thank-you card as well-- I just wondered how she could write a thank-you card after her husband's death! I seem to be frozen in a state of debilitation that prevents me from writing words that should seem so foreign.

    I'm also not very eloquent. It's even harder to put forth that shiny facade when I can barely find happiness each day. But I'm thankful for their love, too. I hate that I am thankful but partly resentful that I am the recipient and that they feel "sorry" for us. I know that's prideful/selfish/bitchy, but it's me in the flesh. Not going to lie.

    To see my beautiful boy's name in print, though, is just breathtaking. I love him and people love us enough to acknowledge we deserve to mourn and cherish our son.

    Do not send if you would not be doing so thoughtfully. Writings related to Eliza need not be forced. Of anything-- they should be cherished. It's all we have.

  9. We used the same thank you notes for his shower gifts as we did for our sympathy "gifts" - I loved them too much (a letter press dandelion blowing across the card). I was totally overwhelmed by the thought of getting them written; I pride myself on writing witty and clever and timely and PERSONAL thank you notes...and I knew these would likely be none of those.

    In the end, I ended up writing a generic note inside every single card. "With love and gratitude for your support in our time of sorrow, S & E" I then included a packet of wildflower seeds like the ones we gave out at his memorial service (they had a simple sticker on them with instructions to scatter anywhere they wanted to bring more beauty into the world) and a photo of Otis. I felt like a huge slacker sending a generic note to every single person, but I can tell you that I probably only personalized maybe three notes in total, and in the end, it felt totally right to do it that way.

    Writing them, for me, was largely cathartic actually. I felt like it kept me connected to Otis in some way. I also felt like it reminded our friends, 3 or 4 months after the fact, that life was barely trodding along for us. Many friends commented that they were amazed to have received a note at all - and I think that's really true.

    You do what you can do, Brooke. There is no obligation here. I did mine because I had time on my hands and I was starting to lose my mind and a simple repetitive task, writing the same lines over and over, felt helpful in some way.

    And yes, that baby duck card is too precious. I am so sad your little duck isn't in your arms today.

    love, s

  10. I was also instilled with sending thank-you notes and feel the same way when I don't get one in return. There were a couple of shower gifts that came days before his birth that I never sent. I couldn't. What would it say? I did send thank you notes to the people who did nice things for us after he died. Sadly, those only required one box of cards. Love to you mama~

  11. There is no need to send cards under these circumstances.

    But if you feel you really should, could you write a generic message and add in the link to this post? I know you are somewhat public with this blog - and this post is beautifully eloquent as always. Maybe it would help?

  12. My comment would be similar to Tiffany's. Once I regained some (mental) strength, I sent the cards. About 200 of them, maybe more. To anyone and everyone who sent a card/text/email/flowers/lasagna - anything. I had some cards printed, with the same message on each, and also a photo of Hope. This was also my way of making her real, taking stillbirth to everyone I know and basically hitting them over the head with it. I wanted them to see my daughter. I didn't want it to seem like something really bad had just happened to us. I wanted to make her real. Addressing all of those envelopes was a huge task, but one I felt proud to accomplish.
    B is right though, there is no right or wrong. And don't rush yourself. You could send them today, in six months or in 12 months, and that all still seems "normal" and "acceptable" to me. You make your own rules as to how you want to get through this.
    Big love, mama.

  13. I have a real weakness for pretty stationery, & I have several boxes of thank you notes (although I am not as good about sending them as I used to be). I found writing thank you notes after Katie was stillborn very therapeutic. But everyone is different and, as the others have said, you do what you can do.

    Your post reminded me of a former client at our support group. She felt horribly guilty for not having written thank you notes. We reassured her that it was never too late, & I think she wound up writing them around the one-year anniversary mark, telling people that life was still hard, but they were grateful for the support they had received, etc. She said it was still hard to do, but a relief at the same time to finally have it crossed off the to-do list at the back of her mind.

  14. P.S. Forgot to say, the baby duck card was just too cute. : )

  15. Thank you for this post. I've been wanting to send cards since the day after Pearl died, but I haven't done it. Now I'm telling myself that I'll get them done in time to send around her birthday (in 2 months). I hope I follow through!

    I just feel emotionally exhausted every time I think about doing it, but I know I will feel 100% better as soon as I've done it.

    - M

  16. Since licking the envelope and addressing the front are positive for you and make you feel like you're accomplishing something, perhaps- if you REALLY feel like doing something- you could print off this blog post, stick it in the envelope, lick it, address it, and send it.

    Or you could just never do it because your mom is totally right.

    Today, when I was at Cane Ridge (site of a revival that kinda started the DoC), I learned that Barton Stone (one of the founders of the movement) married a girl named Eliza. He described her as "pious and intelligent." In addition to being beautiful and funny as hell and articulate and athletic and dramatic...I'm pretty sure our Eliza would also be these things:).