London - For the umpteenth time that morning, my phone pinged with yet another incoming message. This time the correspondent was an old university friend who, having heard of my recent bereavement, offered two lines of sympathy on the ‘sad loss of my grandmother’.
More than a little shocked, I batted back an immediate response, thanking him for his kind words, while also pointing out it was in fact my dear mom who had just passed away.
“Oh, so sorry about that,” spluttered his contrite reply. “Thinking of you xx”.
I admit, I felt crushed. The death of my mother - the most important woman in my life - dashed off in a careless text message, on a commute to work. In other circumstances, such a mistake might have been funny, but it was gut-wrenching when I was still steeped in grief.
However, my friend was by no means alone in choosing to use the likes of texting or social media sites such as Facebook for delivering condolences.
I’ve been receiving messages in this way almost non-stop since losing my lovely mom nearly three weeks ago.
And why not? Just do the maths. You hear that an old classmate/former work colleague/past girlfriend/fellow parent from the school run has suffered a family bereavement. In less than a minute you can show that you care without recourse to an awkward phone call, the inconvenience of a visit or the effort of a letter.
Believe me I’ve done it myself, many times. And until now, never felt anything less than, to use text speak, “gr8” about what I thought was a perfectly acceptable way to express sympathy.
But now here I am, at the other end of the cellphone. A woman who has just lost the loveliest of mothers. And I realise just how soulless it is to receive condolences - however well-meant - in short and impersonal, almost glib, one-liners, and often signed off with “lots of luv xx”.
As I squint to read these messages on my phone screen, I’ve come to understand how this new “etiquette” has obviated the need for a personal touch, even at a time of dark sorrow and deep distress, allowing well-wishers to appear to be doing “the right thing” while, in fact, expending no emotional energy at all.
Interestingly, only a handful of those who contacted me this way prefaced their message with an apology at their mode of communication or explained they had no choice but to resort to texts because they were away on holiday. Though, in some cases, it seemed the text was enough to feel they had discharged their duty even after their return.
Of course, in the days before social media, if a person wished to express their condolences they’d either have to ring or visit the bereaved - however uncomfortable a prospect that might be - or at the very least send a letter or sympathy card. Those few minutes spent with a pen hovering over a blank page trying to marshal the right words as well as the effort required in going to buy a stamp would be part of the connecting process.
But now there’s no need to do any of this. Social media has become today’s norm, a place to celebrate life’s milestones or chew over every nugget of daily routine, and even, it seems, commiserate on the most profound emotional blows.
One 20-something friend expressed her sympathy in one paragraph of a Facebook message and in the next wondered, “while she was on”, if she could have the number of a mutual work contact.
As those texts rolled in, the stark limitations of virtual sympathy only served to heighten the impact of the handful of condolence letters and sympathy cards I received.
The comfort derived from the loop of every handwritten word was immense. Each one, though often short in length, effortlessly eased into anecdotes about my late mom.
One writer remembered how they had been on the same charity committee as Mom, another recalled seeing her regularly at local musical concerts. Treasured chips in the mosaic of a life that had been lived and was now preserved in the memories of those left to mourn and remember.
Phone calls were equally gratifying. Even though I didn’t always pick up, sometimes because I simply wasn’t there, but often by design when the day seemed too dark for small talk, just hearing a human voice curling out of the answering machine was a huge comfort.
Only the other day a relative of my husband left a sweet, simple: “Hi, honey, how are you doing? Have been thinking about you so much. Would love to have a chat. Will try you again.”
Delivered by text such a sentiment might well have seemed spare and lifeless. Articulated by a human voice, it bubbled with comforting warmth.
The irony is that offering sympathy via the internet and text message isn’t, as I’ve discovered, necessarily the easy option since it only makes it more difficult to communicate with the mourner when you do face them in the flesh.
One friend of a friend sent me a polite text when she heard my news. When I saw her in person a week later, though, she looked at me with large doleful eyes, but made no reference to what had happened. As if the matter had been dealt with and neatly set aside by her text. She was socially paralysed - and I was left feeling how much easier the moment would have been if we’d made real, human contact first time round.
So how did we come to this? I know I share some responsibility for the very culture I now criticise. As a busy working mother, I organise vast tracts of my life by text.
Scrolling through the messages I’ve sent over the past six months I can see all too many examples of what I would have considered noble, thoughtful behaviour at the time.
A text to a friend to see how her wisdom teeth operation went, or a Facebook message to an old work contact asking how the new job was going. I didn’t think of picking up the phone.
Little wonder that a culture has sprouted up which regards this form of communication as the default setting for sympathetic expression. And it’s so convenient. There you are, idling in the canned fruit aisle of your local Sainsbury’s when a text lands on your phone telling you a mutual friend has lost a parent. It seems “natural” to ping over a message.
You think it shows you care, but the effect can be quite the opposite.
I did still receive lots of visitors after Mom passed away - being Jewish it’s traditional for mourners to stay at home for a week while well-wishers come to pay their respects and keep you company. Perhaps being surrounded by so many who cared only served to expose the emotional emptiness of the text message as carrier pigeon.
Coming to terms with the loss of my mom is tough. You battle with a dull, hard ache in your chest, trying to savour the memories without sinking into sadness. My mom was a wonderful lady. Warm-hearted, kind, a relentless optimist who always tried to see the good in everyone. (She’d doubtless berate me for being critical of those who clearly only meant well in texting me.)
But truncating that presence into a crisp text message seems woefully inadequate. It diminishes the brightness of her light and the worthiness of the sender.
I’ve learnt the hard way not to take what I think is the easy option when it comes to comforting the bereaved. Perhaps before tapping on your keyboard, you may well think twice about doing the same. - Daily Mail