Letters of condolence

Years ago we briefly participated in a group of United Church of Christ clergy couples. We were aware that there was something unique about being in a couple where both partners were ministers. We thought that such a group could provide support and also a forum to discuss some of the unique challenges of sharing a marriage and a career. As it turned out, we discovered, relatively soon, that we didn’t really have much in common with the other couples in the group. We didn’t live in the same region of the country. We didn’t have similar career paths. We didn’t have the same kind of relationships. We didn’t have the same working styles. We have kept touch with some of the people in the group over the years. Of the couples in that group we are the only ones who continued as a clergy couple for all of our career. Most of the couples in the group divorced. In the remaining ones, with us being the only exception, one partner left the ministry and pursued a different career. To our knowledge we are the only clergy couple in the United Church of Christ who have served our entire careers as a clergy couple. And, unlike all of the other clergy couples we know in any denomination, we are the only ones who served the same congregation for our entire careers. 42 years in three parishes makes us the longest-serving clergy couple we know. I’m not sure what that distinction means, but it has been a very good life for us.

Along the way we have made friends with a lot of other couples who have strong marriages. And we have made friends with a lot of pastors who have faithfully served their congregations over the span of their lives. We seem to have more in common with couples who have strong and long-lasting marriages than we do with those who are both ministers. And we seem to have more in common with ministers who serve long pastorates and don’t move too often than we do with those who go from parish to parish, serving in a lot of different settings over the span of their careers.

In the past couple of weeks two couples we know have experienced the death of one of the partners. One of the deceased partners was a bit younger than us. He was the husband of a minister who is actively serving the church. He was very proud to be the spouse of a clergy person and worked hard to support his wife’s career while working hard at his own. In the other couple, the partner who died was the clergy person. He served a long career in several different settings of the church. Both couples were the kind of people that we knew primarily as couples. Most of the time we saw them together. Our relationship was with the couple.

As so I am left struggling to write an appropriate letter of condolences to the surviving spouse. As jobs go, I am acutely aware that my role is no where near as difficult as that of the spouse who has lost her partner. In both cases the husband was the first to die, leaving behind a widow.

It is a simple truth that for most couples one dies first and the surviving spouse is left with a journey of grief as they continue through the rest of their live. You can think about it in theory, but it is not something that you can fully imagine before it occurs. As a result it would be silly for me to pretend that I understand what these widows are going through. Their journeys of grief are unique, just as their relationships with their husbands were unique.

I often delay writing letters of condolence. It is a pattern I developed as an active minister. I would focus on care of the survivors and planning a meaningful funeral service in the immediate aftermath of a death. Only later, after the funeral was finished and the other friends had gone back to their lives, did I get around to writing a letter. I’ve felt that this is not a bad pattern. In the busyness of planning a funeral, calling friends and relatives to notify them of the death, dealing with all of the tasks of insurance and other business one more letter can just be another burden. A few weeks later as things begin to settle down and thank you notes have been written and loneliness begins to deepen a letter with a memory or two can be savored. At least that is the excuse I use to justify my procrastination.

Finding the right words is a challenge for me even after years of helping others with their grief and loss. I know that memories are precious friends in times of grief, and I like to share one or two memories that are unique to the relationship I had with the person who died. I also know that words are not the primary tools for dealing with grief and so I try not to use too many words. It is a bit as I imagine writing poetry might be. You put down a bunch of words and then start removing words until what is left is direct and to the point. It is an exercise that is quite different from the way I write my journal entries.

Perhaps that is one of the changes in my life that is appropriate for this phase of retirement. As I adjust to a new way of living, during which every Sunday is a challenge of adjustment, perhaps Sundays can be a day of drawing closer to others, taking time to write those special letters, and reaching out to others. I don’t know if my Sunday malaise is primarily due to retirement or due to the pandemic that makes forming community such a challenge. Whatever the case, I know that Sundays are a challenge for me and a time when I catch myself grieving the end of my career.

So today might be just the right day to write letters to friends whose pain and grief is much deeper than my own. Walking together with others in their grief is a meaningful and powerful way to live.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!