I was shopping with my mom and looking for a sympathy card for a friend whose own elderly mother just passed away after a long struggle with dementia. Imagine my surprise when among the tasteful, dignified cards picturing lilies, crosses, butterflies, serene gardens and poetic sentiments was a shrink-wrapped bargain bundle of them!
You know that the U.S. population demographics are skewing older when you can now buy sympathy cards in bulk, much like you’d purchase shrink-wrapped supplies of mac and cheese or vitamin water. One for now and more for later, “just in case.” Bargain survival-sized rations of something that you only use when somebody doesn’t survive. What’s next: boxes of 25 at Costco?
A six-pack of sympathy cards is perfect if you are expecting a slew of bad news. As a growing number of us in middle age also deal with aging parents, this is a morbid sign of the times. No less than six of our good friends and neighbors have lost their parents within the past year. Moreover, as I approach my sixtieth birthday I find myself scanning the obits more and more, for people my age as well as for people whose families I might know. Every time I see an age gap that’s uncomfortably close I go out for a walk and count my blessings.
Perhaps buying sympathy cards ahead is not such a bad idea, especially in the age of prepaid funerals and advanced health care directives. The late comedienne Joan Rivers planned the details of her own funeral several years ago, including tributes from Meryl Streep in five languages and a wind machine near her coffin so that Joan (dressed in Valentino) would look as fetching as Beyonce. People who are far less famous than Joan Rivers have also planned their ultimate going-away party. A good friend of mine has also asked her family to follow special orders if she is ever on life support: don’t pull the plug until she’s a size 10. As someone who’s worked at newspapers I also know that eulogies and obits are often composed well before the body gets cold.
Well, I did buy the six-pack of sympathy cards, which are tasteful and simple, along with a “special” single card for my neighbor, and figured I wouldn’t feel bad about it because I’m not sure who will get them. Afterwards my mom and I decompressed by heading over the section of funny cards, howling out loud at some of the more risqué ones.
One can argue of course that buying ahead saves time, money and gas, just like buying toilet paper in bulk or a 700-capsule jar of vitamins. Yet the pain and trauma of losing a loved one, no matter how old, makes it seem crass to be practical about how we comfort them. I’ve always viewed choosing sympathy cards not only as a respectful custom and a duty towards the grieving, but also as a meditation on the person’s life and the family’s loss. The sentiment that works for one grief-stricken family may not work for another. And it never occurred to me to make a special trip to buy a sympathy card ahead of time, even if someone I know is clearly at the end. There is something vulture-like about this. It feels like cheating, like being presumptuous or even inviting the worst. So maybe I will save my shrink wrapped cards for people I don’t know that well.