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Sympathy Card

Sympathy card

Estimated reading time — 5 minutes

I can remember getting my first sympathy card sixty years ago when I was a junior at Nichols College in Massachusetts back in 1962. I was a twenty-year old Finance and Accounting major back then. My name was handwritten on the envelope in a slightly messy, scribbly fashion, as if a right-handed person tried to write my name and address with his or her left hand. The envelope appeared weathered with tarnished brown marks, creases and slight tears as if it floundered in the postal system for twenty years. I immediately thought it was a prank as soon as I opened it. It was a very generic Hallmark sympathy card offering me condolences on my loss. There was no return address on the envelope and absolutely nothing was written on the inside of the card. I do recall the envelope had a 6 cent postage stamp affixed with the USPS ink stamp across it. I can remember shaking my head and chuckling while sitting on my dorm bed. I quickly went room to room down my dorm hallway asking and/or accusing my fellow classmates on who did this weird and morbid joke. April Fool’s Day was the week before, so I thought maybe the card got lost in the mail. Everybody denied any part of the obvious prank. The card and envelope got tossed. Again, that was over sixty years ago and I can remember it like it was yesterday.

The very next day my mother called me and informed me that my grandfather (her dad) had passed suddenly from a massive heart attack. I went home for a few days to attend the funeral service and spend time with my parents, siblings and cousins. I totally dismissed the card that I received the day before as coincidental. So, again, that was my first sympathy card.

Over the next sixty years I would go on and receive probably forty or so sympathy cards, arriving at random intervals no matter where I lived. It was the same type of nondescript, generic Hallmark card with the same chicken-scratched handwriting on the front. The envelope always looked old and faded with no return address, and nothing ever written on the inside. It would always have the appropriate stamp glued to it along with the USPS stamping across it certifying that the post office received and delivered it. The inside of the card always had the typical four or five sentences written by a very creative and sensitive employee of Hallmark telling me how sorry they feel for my loss.

Weird right? Okay…here’s the kicker. The very next day after I’d receive a condolence card, someone close to me would die. I quickly established that connection early after I received my second card (at a different address) and then was informed that my Uncle Ernie passed the next day in a tragic automobile accident. I was twenty-five years old then. After that, every two to five years I would randomly get a sympathy card delivered, then I would find out that a grandparent, parent, ex-co-worker, an old neighbor, an aunt or uncle or an old college friend had passed! Once I reached my sixties, more close acquaintances and family would pass, sometimes up to three in one year, with each death preceded with a sympathy card in my mail the day before.

I got married at the age of thirty-three to a lovely and caring woman named Doris. I kept this from her our entire marriage as I did not want to pull her into something I don’t even understand myself. I didn’t want to upset her or try to convince her it was more than just a coincidence. The cards would get delivered to me, I wouldn’t even open them; they got tossed in the garbage pail before even getting into the house. There was absolutely no way I thought of keeping them as I was convinced they were somehow, in some way, cursed. I did not want Doris involved in any of this.

Doris died twenty-two years ago at the young age of fifty-five from a brain aneurysm. It happened so suddenly. She died at home in my arms, something I’ll never forget. The card that came in the mail the day before was for her. I just assumed it was another uncle or an older cousin. The guilt that followed weighed heavily on my thoughts for years; if only I had known, could I have somehow prevented her from dying? Who knew she was going to die and why didn’t they reach out to me?


As I grew older, my sister would pass at seventy-two with my brother going four years later at the age of seventy-nine. Many ex-co-workers, two bowling buddies, a handful of cousins, at least six college friends back from my days at Nichols and four very close golf buddies all died and with each passing there was a foreshadowing sympathy card in my mail the day before.

I just can’t ever seem to wrap my head around this morbid phenomenon. Who is sending me these cards? How do they know every address that I have ever lived at over the last sixty-two years? Why is there nothing ever written inside? How the hell do they know all my family and close friends? How do they know they’re dying the next day? And lastly, why me? Why me???

Now, at my age, every time I receive a sympathy card, I pray it’s not one of my adult children or my grandchildren. My children are in their fifties now with teenage children of their own. I worry so much about them as they venture further out of the house driving around with their teen friends, possibly involved in risky teenage behavior. My world would be absolutely crushed if anything ever happened to them or to my adult children. No child or grandchild should ever die before the parent or grandparent, but it does happen and it’s what keeps me up at night whenever I receive a card in the mail. Nowadays when I receive a card, I call both my children the next morning to do a wellness check. I’ll ask what they’re doing that day and assess their risk level if they’re going out in public or traveling somewhere by car or plane. I’ll ask about my grandchildren too and make sure they will be somewhere safe. I know my children think I’m on the cusp of dementia when I make these annoying calls but I just need to do it for peace of mind. I always end the phone call by telling them to be careful driving.


So here I am, eighty-two years young, sitting at my kitchen table, writing this on lined paper with a Bic ballpoint pen in hand. I just don’t know what’s going to happen to me, so I want to document this strange phenomenon that has plagued me for the last sixty plus years. I’m not sure if this will be my last entry; my son called me earlier this afternoon. He told me that he received the “weirdest thing” in the mail today. He said he received a stamped envelope addressed to him with, according to my son, handwriting that looked like a 4th grader might have written it. He said the envelope looked ancient and he told me inside the envelope was a Hallmark sympathy card with absolutely nothing written on the inside of the card. He told me it’s probably some stupid prank from one of his co-workers. Later in our conversation he asked me what my plans were for tomorrow. I told him I’m definitely staying inside all day.

Credit: G.H. Appleby

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