Long before we could reach out and touch someone sad via phone, email, or texts, there was the letter.
While it’s easy to think of letters as mainly sources of cherry correspondence, they also have been a common method to send messages of consolation, long before you could go the store and select the perfect Hallmark card to share sympathies at a tough time.
The sender can use all the pages they want to share sympathy, any memories of the deceased, and any particular experiences and personal insights with death and grieving.
Death is something that we’ve experienced for thousands of years, but our understanding of it continues to evolve. For instance, our current culture generally understands the five stages of grief we all go through in difficult times. (Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). But these clearly defined stages are actually fairly new, coming into popular consciousness in the early 1970s.
This means our collective history of grief in letters of note is going to include all sorts of varied discussions and opinions about the meaning of grief and the meaning of life. Trying to seek answers in these emotionally challenging situations has even led to several letters back and forth on this topic. The letters may have even served a therapeutic purpose as well, and helped people deal with their personal grief by putting their thoughts and feelings into words.
Certainly everyone expressed opinions about grief in different ways, and historic figures and prominent authors and thinkers from their respective time periods are able to provide interesting observations about life and their culture from their writings. Their letters of note may sometimes need a little context to better understand the topic (was the writer talking about grief over a child, spouse, or parent, or grief in general?) but they are always poignant.
Two examples of letters of note dealing with grief include:
- Abraham Lincoln – Scholars are still finding interesting insight from the writings of the 16th president of the United States. He regularly communicated with all sorts of people, from generals during the Civil War in the 1860s to his friends and family. He also had his share of tragedy, including his mother’s death when he was a child to losing two sons when he was in office. He was president during a difficult time in the country, but there were other incidents which he discussed in his writing. One of his letters was to Fanny McCullough, the daughter of Lincoln’s longtime friend William McCullough after his death in 1862. He shared his memories of William and started by saying that death does come for all of us eventually, but it still hurts. He did his best to offer comfort, promising her she’d feel better in the future.
- Johannes Brahms – Brahms was known for his music, but he also had a surprising amount of insight in the human condition. Two of his friends were Clara and Robert Schumann. Clara was an accomplished pianist and Robert was a composer who also served as a mentor to Johannes. When Robert had a mental breakdown and died in an institution, Johannes regularly wrote to Clara. He emphasized the importance of staying strong and the good things that await her after an appropriate period of bereavement. In his letters of note, he also encouraged her to be aware that going through such a difficult time now will make future good times more enjoyable and pleasant.