I have written a lot of condolence notes.
It’s not because I have known a lot of people who died, or because the people who died had very large families. Rather, it is because I was on the board of my synagogue for seven years, and one of the things our board members do is we write letters to the family of members of the congregation who died.
So, I have some experience writing condolence notes about people I may not have known, and to people I don’t know. One of the things I learned is not to make assumptions. People who have great relationships with their family members tend to make the mistake, when writing condolence notes, of believing everyone else does, too. I know, however, that many people have complicated relationships, and it’s a good idea not to assume facts not in evidence when writing these notes.
But last week, I was faced with writing a condolence note to someone I didn’t know, regarding the death of her husband. One thing that made the situation awkward is that I knew her now-deceased husband very well, more than 20 years ago, when he was my husband. What made it more weird was that, although I had just learned of his death the day before, three and a half years had passed between the time of his death and me learning about it.
The third thing that made it uncomfortable was that I had no idea what their relationship was like. I knew the reason we divorced was because he was emotionally abusive, and he refused to even try to change his abusive behavior, even after our marriage counselor told him it would cause him to lose our relationship.
The reason I hadn’t kept in contact with him, and therefore didn’t learn about his death until so much later, was that the abuse didn’t stop when the marriage ended. He tried to keep in touch, but the gift of divorce meant that I no longer had to subject myself to his abuse. After repeated, failed attempts to get him to behave toward me in a non-abusive way, I simply didn’t give him my new contact information when I moved, changing both my physical and email address, as well as my phone number.
So here I was, sitting down to write a condolence note to his widow, hoping that, somehow, in the intervening years he might have gotten some therapy and done the work to eliminate his abusive behavior. That seemed unlikely; he wasn’t just abusive toward me, or even “just” toward women. I had witnessed him being abusive toward men on numerous occasions as well.
Clearly, it was neither safe to assume he had been abusive toward her, nor to assume that he had not. In addition, three and a half years had passed. It was possible that, at the time of his death, she may not have realized how abusive he was, but she may have come to realize it afterward. It sure took me long enough to recognize his behavior as abuse, and I have no idea how long she was with him.
I also felt like I needed to at least give her a clue about who I am; also possibly a bit awkward, knowing that when I was with him I learned of an ex-wife of his only when a friend of his happened to mention her to me. Maybe she knows a lot about me. Maybe she knows nothing about me. Maybe it is something in between. I settled on telling her I was married to him “in the 90’s” without further embellishment.
In the end, there were so many unknowns, I’m afraid the condolence note was a bit generic. I do hope, in any case, that she receives it in the way that it was intended. I am sorry for any pain that his death may have caused her and/or her family, and I do wish her nothing but safe, healthy relationships in the future, regardless of what her relationship with my ex-husband may have been like.
Still, after many, many, condolence notes, it sure felt the weirdest of all.
Susan Esther Barnes is a founding member of Rodef Sholom’s (Marin) Chevrah Kadisha, and she can regularly be seen greeting people at her synagogue before services. She has served as a member of the board of Kavod v’Nichum, and is a Gamliel Institute graduate.