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Lockdown letters

During lockdown, there were some activities which we have ended up doing more of such as baking banana bread and catching up with friends on Zoom. In addition, more of us have taken the time to sit down and write a letter.

One lady told us how she’d written to her nearly 100-year-old Godfather, who had gone into a care home just before lockdown. She’d been used to calling him regularly or visiting and now this wasn’t possible. In addition to telling him what she and her family had been up to, she also included some old photos which she knew would bring back happy memories.

Many parents in the midst of home-schooling also encouraged their children to write letters – perhaps to grandparents or to their school friends. Others have found themselves pen-pals for the duration, while some schools organised for their students to pen letters to folk in local care homes.

An article on the BBC News website introduces us to Riona Nolan, a 17-year-old student from the Republic of Ireland, who was prompted to start writing letters by an Irish Postal Service campaign which gave everyone two postcards to send for free.

Riona wrote to her best friend, who she hadn’t seen since before lockdown.

“It was a lot more personal and authentic,” she said. “You had to really think about what you were going to write, instead of just shooting a text with a few words in it. When she received it, she was so appreciative because a lot of thought went into it. I told her how much I miss her and talked about all the things we’ll do together when we can see each other again. When she received it, she said she got such a nice feeling.”

During this time, we’ve also heard of more people sitting down to write sympathy cards and letters – particularly friends and family who haven’t been able to attend a funeral and give their condolences in person. Rather than a few quick words, they’ve taken the time to explain what that person meant to them and how much they’ll miss them in their lives.

Such letters are so important that most will be keep and we often hear of people reading them again – perhaps on an anniversary or when they simply feeling sad.

While we know that the receiving of a sympathy card is universally appreciated – we’ve all sat down to write one and found the words hard to find. This is something which Bruce Feiler discussed in a blog in the New York Times in which he said that, rather falling back on cliched phrases, sharing a positive memory is often a good thing to do.

Bruce explained that one gentleman told him the condolence notes that moved him most were from strangers who shared a recollection of his father. “That was important for me because I realised his place in the world,” he said. “At the time, you’re only thinking of your own relationship to the loved one. You realise this person had an impact beyond you. That was comforting.”

Bruce added that the food writer and editor, Jane Lear, has collected etiquette books for many years and studied how condolence notes have evolved. He explained that she prefers the model outlined by Millicent Fenwick in ‘Vogue’s Book of Etiquette’, published in 1948. First an expression of sympathy (‘I was so sorry to hear...’). Second a word about the deceased. Finally, an expression of comfort.

Jane added. “However, I think my favourite note upon the death of my brother was from one of my closest friends. ‘My dear Jane,’ he wrote. ‘IT STINKS.’”

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