The following column appeared originally in September, 1989.
Q: When my mother passed away, my sister-in-law was gracious enough to assist me in sending acknowledgments. We took turns reading addresses, and my turn for writing the envelopes was first. When we decided to switch, my sister-in-law said: "Why are you giving me their names? They didn't send flowers or a memorial contribution." I said that it didn't matter; they were good enough to come to the funeral home. She said that didn't make any difference -- they weren't entitled to an acknowledgment. I was appalled, and so was my father when he overheard this.
I'm wondering how many others have this same attitude? Perhaps it would be an interesting discussion topic. -- A.G., Dearborn, Mich.
A: I suspect plenty of people share your sister-in-law's attitude, and that's too bad. While it's easy to dismiss your disagreement as splitting hairs about stodgy rules of etiquette, those rules exist for a reason.
Think of it this way: If we send an acknowledgment only to people who are "entitled" to it, aren't we really asking people to "earn" our gratitude?
Certainly in times of grief or crisis, some friends will be more stalwart than others. Yet, as you know, in those times every expression of sympathy and support can mean a great deal.
The notion that there is some arbitrary cutoff point for expressions of gratitude goes against the spirit of friendship and compassion that death elicits in friends and acquaintances.
Moreover, it ignores another aspect of human nature -- the fact that we need other people to help us through the times of grief, loneliness or even despondency that can linger for months or sometimes even years after the death of a loved one. An expression of gratitude to friends encourages further acts of friendship.
Grief is a wrenching experience, and it doesn't end with the funeral. That's why the rules of etiquette that demand thank-you notes in the first place make psychological sense.
Grieving people don't often feel much like going through the motions, and maybe that's one reason preprinted acknowledgments often are substituted for a more personal, handwritten expression of thanks.
But like visitation, funerals and the other rituals surrounding death, the process -- or chore, if you like -- of acknowledging acts of friendship and sympathy are good therapy. They provide another way of coming to terms with a loss, as well as another way of giving perspective to the life of the person we are grieving for.
Your question reminds me of a letter from another reader, one who wrote a very personal, reflective letter to the widow of an old friend and, eventually, got back only a preprinted acknowledgment. That left him feeling unappreciated and even a little embarrassed for pouring out his feelings. His case is a good reminder that personal notes -- even if only a sentence or two -- often carry a great deal more meaning than a preprinted card.
It's also important to remember that personal expressions of sympathy -- letters, notes or visits -- can cost more in emotional terms than flowers or memorial contributions. That's why they are equally deserving of a written response.
Send your comments and questions about death and dying to Sara Engram, Mortal Matters, The Evening Sun, P.O. Box 1377, Baltimore, Md. 21278.