They say we can always be sure of two things: death and taxes. I think we can also be sure of a third thing. When death comes, and we announce it, someone is bound to respond with an inappropriate e-mail.
My sister-in-law passed away in mid-March. We were fortunate to have had a peaceful visit with her before she died. Afterwards, we called family members to tell them of her passing.
Then I sent a three-sentence e-mail to 20 other people whom I thought might want to hear our news. None of them knew my sister-in-law. They were either good friends, or relatives on the other side of the family.
As I expected, most folks expressed their condolences quickly but briefly. Our closest friends followed up with sympathy cards and phone calls. One even sent us his famous Irish soda bread.
Taking the time
Then the weirdness began. A neighbor e-mailed me to ask for help with her daughter’s job search. “I’d be happy to help,” I answered, “but can we wait until after Easter? My sister-in-law just died.”
Her answer: “OK, thanks. Happy Easter!”
To a colleague, I wrote, “I’ll have to postpone our meeting until after Easter. My sister-in-law just died.”
Her answer: “Happy Easter!”
A niece didn’t reply to my e-mail at all. So I sent it again a week later, with the note: “Did you see this?”
She answered, “Oops! Missed it. So sad!”
None of these people are callous, indifferent, or rude. They just didn’t make time to read an e-mail that did not require their immediate attention. We’ve all done it.
In fact, I may have contributed to this situation myself by sending an e-mail to begin with. If the recipients weren’t close enough to our relative to merit more personal contact, then perhaps I shouldn’t have expected a more personal response.
You give what you get
Yet the neighbor seeking help for her daughter surely expected me to make time to read her kid’s two-page resume. The niece who missed my current e-mail didn’t miss my last one — an invitation to buy her lunch at a trendy new restaurant.
Then there is the issue of reciprocity. When people we know have a death in the family, we should remember their past kindnesses to us. Case in point: Some friends we hadn’t heard from in years got themselves in legal trouble. They called my husband, a lawyer, who promptly dropped everything to help them. When we told them of our own misfortune three weeks later, I found their generic e-mail — “Your family is in our prayers” — just plain lacking.
Maybe I’m turning into my Italian grandfather. Nonno was a factory worker, but you would have thought he was a big-time accountant from the black leather ledger he kept. It did not record financial obligations, but moral ones. In it, Nonno listed the names of each of our family members who had died, along with their dates of death. Down the side column were the names of each person who had acknowledged our family’s deaths; across the top were the specific ways that each person had shown respect. When you are an Italian Catholic immigrant in the Bronx, your bereavement options are endless.
For example, when my nana, Maria, died, Nonno chronicled every possible means of offering condolences. Did a certain family come to the wake? For one night? Two? Or three? Did they attend the funeral? The burial? Did they send a Mass card? Flowers? Did they cook dinner for our family? Pay us a visit?
This record allowed my grandfather to see our own obligations at a glance when someone else passed away. Nonno would take out the black ledger, look up the family of the deceased, and determine the appropriate course of action — no more and no less — based on what they had done for us. A harsh method, perhaps, but also a practical one, in a world where death came easily and often, and memories of its surrounding days could quickly grow blurry.
Forty years after his death, I still carry Nonno’s big black book — or the concept of it — in my head. I want to mark the death of every person I learn about with an appropriate — and caring — response. Somehow, no matter how remote my connection to the deceased, a ten-word e-mail never seems quite enough.
Technology has made the world a smaller place. But it can also make for a lonely planet. Reaching out to someone quickly at their time of loss is always appropriate. But we humans need more. We still need the condolence call, the handwritten note, the freshly baked soda bread. That’s something that technology cannot and should not ever provide.