Sunday, 15 August 2010

In sympathy

Recently I found myself in the glum position of having to buy an 'In sympathy' card to send to a friend – a friend from university who I don't see so much these days, yet when I do, our relationship is immediately and reassuringly as it ever was. One of those friends.

I am big on trivial outrage – one day I'm hoping that will develop into proper grown-up indignance about Really Important Things that I can expand upon at dinner parties – and one enduring outlet for my contempt is the ugliness of mainstream greetings cards. Yes, of course, there are beautiful, stylish, clever, handprinted-by-artists-in-their-Hackney-studios ones out there if you look hard enough and want to pay £4.95, but on the average high street, in the average stationer nestling between Caffe Nero and Dorothy Perkins, you are assailed by only the ugly, the twee and the retch-inducing. Who buys them all? Someone, anyone, tell me who? It can only be that same mysterious, hidden number who buy the 'gift ideas' stacked by the tills in John Lewis and Borders before Christmas, those poor potential presents sitting there like plain girls in nightclubs, waiting for desperation o'clock to tick-tick-tick around.

One of the ways in which I am turning into my mum is that these days I buy good greetings cards whenever I see them. They live in a drawer as a loose and peaceful Quality Cards Collective, alongside printer paper and bits of Useful Ribbon, until they are called to action. I have not yet purchased a special box to keep the good cards in, like my friend Ms B, but no doubt that day will come.

'In sympathy' cards are, appropriately, the most depressing examples of Card Crime. Of course, if you are the person receiving one of these cards, what it actually looks like is so very much the least of your worries (along with when you last ate a proper meal and what was it like to sleep right through the night) that maybe that's irrelevent. But that doesn't mean we should fob these vulnerable people off with the dregs of card design, like the government planning to surrender the poorest and weakest 10 per cent of children to the aliens in Torchwood: Children Of The Earth, purely because no one was likely to miss them.

In the popular high-street stationer (which seemed such a Palace of Promise when I was little and I would take my Christmas tokens into the Cambridge branch with tiny, trembling hands, and now is home to three-for-two paperback offers and family bags of Wine Gums) where I was forced to buy my card, the choice pretty much ranged from this:

To this:

I would never, ever, ever, I-really-can't-say-ever-enough-times-here buy a birthday or Christmas card from the same school of design as this. Yet this was entirely typical of the sympathy cards on offer. To paraphrase Morrissey, when he was still with the Smiths, they say nothing to me about my life.

But somehow the whole language of consolation seems foreign. What does 'passed away' even mean? Do the phrases 'at this sad time' or 'offer my condolences' skip naturally off your tongue? Not so much. Yet if you are sending a sympathy card, you feel such a responsibility not to make someone who is already feeling desperately upset feel any more desperately upset (it really is the least you can do, etc etc) that you grope around for the safe choices that everyone else uses. If you are the recipient, it is extremely curious to find that everyone around you is speaking in bizarre Tongues Of Grief (those who are not too scared of upsetting you to speak at all, that is). Although admittedly, you are in such a state of high confusion already that this new development is only a subtle shade darker on the Confusion colour card.

So at this sad time (you see!), swathes of vocabulary find themselves newly deployed, words that do not intersect with any other part of the Venn diagram entitled 'Stuff You Normally Say'. Yet funnily enough, no greetings cards exist which say 'I'm really sorry about this totally shitty thing that has happened to you' or 'When I think about the things you are having to deal with at the moment, I want to be sick', which may be more along the lines of what you actually mean.

In these situations, I would normally choose a blank card with some vaguely soothing flora on the front, and a large white space inside where I would agonisingly scratch out my awkward words of support, but even the blank cards presented a harrowing choice. In the end, I went for a more versatile 'Thinking of you' design, in which a cartoon crocodile hurried somewhere carrying a cup of tea.

I am assuming it was tea. Everyone drinks tea when they're upset, right?

Maybe not my finest hour.

I don't even think it was the right 'Thinking of you'. It seemed more to be saying 'I'm thinking of you now and again, like when I see someone else who is also in a plaster cast, or who also has glandular fever, or a woman crying in a restaurant surrounded by four girlfriends nodding sympathetically, with the one nearest her rubbing her upper back and saying that there's someone better for her out there.' A kind of 'Oh, chin up' thinking of you.

I'm not sure that it exactly said 'Thinking of you while I spend 15 whole minutes in front of the cards in WH Smith totally paralysed by remembering the kind of things you might be experiencing.' But it was the most like something I would normally say, or buy, on any other day of the week. Some kind of normality. There is not much of that around when someone you love has died.

It's not just cards, though. I don't know if this is an OK thing to say or not, but the whole aesthetic of commiseration and funerals seems the only area of our lives that has not been awarded some kind of style makeover in recent times. Given the revolution in interior design that has happened over the last 20 years or so, coffins have yet to embrace the same clean lines and tasteful Farrow & Ball-style paint colours on such a sweeping scale. Gloss surfaces and brass handles persist. In death, people are surely being housed in fabrics and finishes they would never have had in their dwellings when alive, but I'm not sure there are many alternatives.

Perhaps this is because, fortunately, we don't have to make these choices very often. And when we do, we are in a state of shock and disconnection. And when they're over, we don't want to dwell on them. We don't look back at pictures of the day. Unless we're really weird.

Perhaps I will open up some kind of supremely tasteful, forward-thinking funeral director's business, with a sideline in stationery. I'm sure they do exist already, but I'm not sure where. I could probably only do the front of house – I wouldn't be too good in the back where the (non-)action happens.

In the week after my dad died, I decided I might like to retrain as a registrar. The one we saw when we registered his death was so businesslike and buttoned up, and her office so chilly and charmless. I understand she didn't want to reduce us to sobbing wrecks with her overwhelming compassion and kindness, but I wouldn't have minded feeling a bit less like I was getting my road tax application stamped in the post office or signing on.

That ambition only lasted a few weeks. I doubt this one will be any different.


legend in his own lunchtime said...

The problem is amplified a hundred fold in the USA where they are uniformly ugly and tasteless, but also full of religeous drivvle. As a non believer(a minority of little social standing over here)I inevitably buy some blank paper and make my own

Shrimptowers said...

Make you own? I hope there's no potato stamps or glitter involved.

Alison Cross said...

This is so weird, am just working on a blog post from a funeral that I was at yesterday. And in it I am talking about getting rid of the terrible ritual of shaking hands with the bereaved just after their loved one has been committed to the ground/flames.

The serendipity of the intertubes strikes again ;-)

Legend - make your own. Cannot wait to see what pithy card sentiments you dream up! Could be the way forward!!!

Ali x

Jaywalker said...

Christ, yes. The coffins! Vile, sub-Ikea shiny pine, or your granny's dresser. I got the giggles when faced with the laminated undertaker's catalogue of horror.

Also, I remember getting about 8000 variations on the white lily condolence card. Dull.

Please do open a tasteful undertakers. It would be a triumph.

Anonymous said...

What about the terrible pan piped music at the crematoriums? Rich and I started smirking at his grandma's funeral at the pan-piped 'wind beneath my wings' - if you open the tasteful undertakers please do also offer music advice - i imagine that your choices would be excellent. My grandad went to a cremation where they played 'smoke gets in your eyes' - honestly!

Simon said...

You might like these coffins, including (upsettingly) a dolphin one for children.

And sorry about your friend's 'loss'.

I had a similar card experience last week buying my Godfather, 'Uncle' Cyril, a 90th Birthday card. All the 90th ones had a patronising, 'You've made it!' kind of feel, as if patting the pensioner on the head Benny Hill style. They weren't too removed from the 'with sympathy' ones, covered in flowers and cottages. So I bought him two cards- an 80th birthday showing a plane looping-the-loop, and a 10th Birthday one showing Bart Simpson kicking a football. I hope he liked them.

speccy said...

There are huge gaps in the card market. Last year an aunt was expected to die soon, didn't and went home. Oddly, they don't sell any 'glad you're not dead yet' cards for when 'get well soon' isn't going to work. Nor are there cards for 'don't beat yourself up about having had to put your close relative into a nursing home' cards. There should be.

Anonymous said...

I agree - my friend's 18 year old neice had her leg amputated after a horrendous hit and run accident - a 'get well soon' card didn't seem appropriate. But 'sorry about the loss of limb' cards were nowhere to be found.

Shrimptowers said...

Isn't this the very reason M** was invented? There is no longer a gap in the market, simply a gap in our imagination sometimes.

Anonymous said...

I generally go for a card with a black and white photo usually of a small jetty stretching into the languid water of a lake, or similar. Something that suggests thoughtfulness, peace, serenity with a hint of spirituality without scaring any atheist horses.

That makes the choice sound a bit calculating, but every time I've searched for an In Sympathy card and selecting one of the above, it has been heartfelt.


Mr T