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Schmich: What the perfect sympathy card should say

It's the card that is never on the

It's the card that is never on the rack that you need most. Credit: iStock

The perfect sympathy card is any sympathy card you get around to sending.

I give myself this lecture every time I go in search of the perfect condolence card, which these days is too often.

Don't be so picky, I tell myself. Choose a card, any card.

I survey the racks, all those autumn leaves and misty beaches, the butterflies, drifting clouds, shafts of sunlight, so very many cards and something wrong with every one.

Too mournful. Too cute. Cliche. I hate scalloped edges.

Perfection, I chide myself, is the enemy of action.

The cards come in categories.

For a sudden loss. After a long illness. For the loss of a child. A sister. A brother. A mother. A father. A pet.

One at a time, I pluck them off the rack, open them, close them, put them back. Does sympathy have to be so syrupy?

And I do not believe that the word "deepest" improves the word "sympathy."

No rainbows, please. Or raindrops on windows. Or the gauzy photo of red poppies. Or a lonely pink rose.

Occasionally I find an image that feels close to right, only to discover it marred by the message inside, like cheap processed meat tucked inside slices of good bread.

I definitely do not want the card that says, "Hold tight to memories for comfort." Sympathy should never be delivered in the imperative tense.

On the other hand, the card that says, "May your memories be your comfort" sounds stilted. Makers of sympathy cards seem to think that 19th-century diction is a kind of verbal Valium, especially if it's rendered in italics.

But what is the perfect card? Do I even know?

I do.

It's the card that is never on the rack, cannot be on the rack. It's the card that conveys sorrow and consolation in exactly the right ratio, one that is both ready-made and entirely, uniquely personal, meaning nonexistent.

In our Facebook era, the quest for the perfect sympathy card may seem outdated. Many people routinely announce the deaths of their loved ones via status updates and receive condolences in long chains of public comments.

But while email and social media have made electronic sympathies acceptable and, to some people, even desirable, there remains a place for the old-fashioned, private card.

The very effort of finding a card, addressing it, putting on a stamp, is part of showing that you care.

I'm not picky when it comes to sympathy cards I receive. I love any card I get. It's only when I have to send a card that I find myself judging them as sternly as a top chef reigning over a competition.

Sympathy cards exist largely because few of us know how to perfectly express sorrow or to comfort the bereaved. Over the years, I've collected a few snippets of poems that help fill the word void many of us experience when summoned to offer comfort.

To mark the death of someone's father, I like Diana Der-Hovanessian's "Shifting the Sun," which begins:

When your father dies, say the Irish, you lose your umbrella against bad weather.

Mary Oliver is always good for a few lines, especially her poem about the importance of holding what is mortal to your bones and "when the times comes to let it go, to let it go."

As all-purpose comfort, I like Alfred, Lord Tennyson's line, "Though much is taken, much abides."

For people who like their condolences as bracing as a shot of whiskey, there's always H.L. Mencken: "Mourning him would be rather silly. He died too soon, but so do we all. The universe is run idiotically, and its only certain product is sorrow. But there are yet men who, by their generally pleasant spirits, by their intense and enlightened interest in what they have to do, by their dignity and decency, by their extraordinary capacity for making and keeping friends, yet manage to cheat, in some measure, the common destiny of mankind, doomed like the beasts to perish."

But however good these lines are, they somehow feel more solid and meaningful when tucked inside a card, and while a blank card will do, I still prefer a good sympathy card.

So I continue on my quest, accompanied each time by the voice that says, "If you wait for the perfect card, you'll never send a card at all."

Mary Schmich is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Chicago Tribune.