When I was a kid, my mom made me write thank you notes for birthday and christmas gifts. I hated it. Hated. It. It was like pulling teeth, writing each one. But somewhere along the line, it sunk in. A handwritten thank you note is a really thoughtful and beautiful way to thank someone for the kindness and generosity they have extended to you. As an adult, I have embraced this old fashioned piece of etiquette. I love browsing stationery stores, picking out beautiful cards and sending thank you notes to friends and family. Letterpress are my favourite! Once my kids can write (and legibly!), I will enforce this tradition of thank you card writing on them as I think it’s really important. So when my husband died, and my friends, family and community showered me with an outpouring of love, kindness and generosity so huge, I did not know where to begin my thank you card writing. I couldn’t think straight but now I was contemplating handwriting hundreds of thank you cards? Widows do crazy things, and this thought of undertaking a massive thank you letter writing campaign was certainly one of them.
The outpouring of love and support that was showered on the girls and I after Kevin died was incredible. And overwhelming. And heartbreaking. The world was showing us how much we were loved and cared for. And my best friend in the world, the person with whom I was desperate to tell about all this amazingness that was happening to me was dead. Day after day in the early weeks, I would catch myself thinking ‘oh my god! I HAVE to tell Kevin about what so and so just did for us’. Time and time again I thought this. And time and time, I would have to remind myself that he was dead so I couldn’t tell him and that all this was happening BECAUSE he was dead. Another hard widow punch to the face. I did undertake a medium size letter writing campaign, spent a small fortune on beautiful letterpress cards and sent thank you notes to my inner circle who had gone above and beyond. Each day when I sat to write a few more cards it felt vaguely reminiscent of writing thank you cards for wedding gifts. Somewhat of a chore because you had to write so many, but also you felt compelled to do it because people had been so kind. But oh yah. These aren’t thank you cards for a new china or towels. These were thank you cards because people had done amazing things because my husband was dead. Fuck. Sigh.
One group of people was still unthanked however. My neighbourhood had mobilized when the news of Kevin’s death spread. Before I knew it, I was receiving dinner drop offs for months, cooked by other families in the neighbourhood and these home cooked meals were a godsend. But they were from strangers, for the most part. I couldn’t write thank you notes to strangers! Gah. I felt this overwhelming need to express my sincere gratitude, but felt paralyzed because I didn’t know who to thank! So when I heard a story on the radio requesting that listeners share their stories of Toronto the Good, I knew I had to share my story. A few weeks later, I received an email back from one of the producers telling me that they were going to read my story on air later that day. Later that day, hearing my words read on air, and realizing how many people were hearing my words of gratitude really touched me. I was so thankful that I was able to let the world know the depths of my gratitude in my darkest days. Below is a copy of the letter I emailed to the CBC.
I heard your story last week about the woman who was blind and broke her arm and her neighbours supported her so well. I wanted to write in and share my experience with Toronto the Good as well! I have been so overwhelmed by the kindness of strangers in my neighbourhood that I’ve actually struggled with wondering how can I thank people I don’t actually know?? Perhaps sharing my story with your audience will help!
In August 2016, my husband unexpectedly passed away at home at the age of 36. He left behind myself, as well as our two daughters, age 2 and 5. Needless to say, my world has been turned upside down with grief and life instantly became almost unbearable. I’ve been stumbling along as a new young widow ever since. Of course my friends and family instantly rose to the challenge and stepped in to carry us. But what I was blown away by was the support that poured out from my neighbourhood, essentially from strangers. I live in the east end of Toronto, off the Danforth near Greenwood. We have lived in the area for almost 11 years and love it. In the last few years, I joined a facebook group for moms of young kids in the area called East Toronto Young Mothers. This group has been a great resource for all kid related questions as well as a fountain of knowledge (where is the best place to get a birthday cake? what is going on the neighborhood for kids this weekend? I need a daycare recommendation! etc etc) My story of loss somehow made it onto the facebook group and instantly the neighbourhood mobilized. My friends had set up a meal train (an online calendar where you can sign up to bring a meal to someone in need) and this link got shared to the group. And the response to cook for me and my girls was incredible! I didn’t have to make a dinner or pack a lunch for my SK kid for September, October or November. 3 months! I’m still receiving occasional meals even now. Every day someone would drop off a meal on my porch, and often the meal was accompanied by a kind and compassionate note from the family. My girls received hand drawn pictures from other kids in these strangers families. Some mornings we would come out on our porch and there would be treats for the girls or a bottle of wine for me. The associated Dads’ group organized getting me a gently used bar fridge which they set up on my porch to receive meal drop offs. A kind stranger came by every Thursday night and pulled out my garbage, recycling and green bins. My leaves got raked, my snow gets shoveled…all by random people on my street. The parent community at my youngest’s daycare anonymously raised funds and paid for 3 months of daycare fees (which in Toronto is no small sum lol!).
Receiving these meals cooked with love and kindness for so many months has carried my girls and I through our grief in a way that is very hard to explain. And has given me a real life example that shows me that people are good. They want to help. They have compassion. They see a family who is hurting and want to help. It’s changed me, and changed me in a good way.
I’m not thankful that my husband died and left me alone to pick up the pieces. But I am thankful I live in a community filled with people who want to help me pick up the pieces. Parents throw around the phrase “it takes a village to raise a child” but don’t know what this truly means but I’m learning its meaning now. My village is filled with strangers who love me and my kids and want to help us. It’s amazing.
For those of you who have cooked a meal, made a donation, sent flowers or a kind word to a new young widow and you haven’t received a thank you, please know she is grateful. She is beyond grateful. She’s also exhausted, frightened and overwhelmed. She just can’t keep her head above water long enough to breath well, let alone undertake a massive letter writing campaign. A few emails and texts I received early on included the words “please don’t feel you have to respond to this” and this sentence changed my world. It took the pressure off. These simple words were a game changer for me. It meant I could read the note or enjoy the meal, be comforted by the act of kindness and then simply be with that comfort. I didn’t have to add another thank you note to my to do list. I didn’t have to feel niggling guilt when I didn’t get around to writing that thank you note. My journey through grief is teaching me things everyday. Big and small. And the realization about how helpful these words were to me was a small but important lesson. From now on when I write a condolence email or drop off a meal to someone newly grieving, I going to make sure to include those simple by powerful words. Please don’t feel you have to respond. To those of you out there who haven’t yet received a thank you note from me, please know it’s still on my to do list, it might never get crossed off that list, but I am forever thankful for your kindness and generosity.
Take a listen…..