What we can learn from sympathy cards sent to Jackie Kennedy

Days after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, thousands of letters poured in to the White House in care of Jacqueline Kennedy, offering condolences to the grieving widow. She later appeared on television, thanking the nation for reaching out to her.

A little girl saw that appearance and years later, remembered that moment while she was researching a project at Kennedy library for her work as an American political and intellectual historian and professor. Ellen Fitzpatrick was inspired to dig up those letters written by more than a million people over the course of only a few months.

Fitzpatrick compiled 250 of those sympathy sentiments in the recently released Letters to Jackie: Condolences From a Grieving Nation. Among the emotion-filled letters are those from children, a prisoner, and Langston Hughes. Eleven of the letters have been reprinted in the New York Times, offering a glimpse at the time, the pain, and the moving ways people connected to the first lady.

Reading them reminded me of the many times I've paused before putting pen to paper to compose my own sympathy note to a friend or acquaintance who has lost someone they love.

Even in our intention to just let the person in pain know that we are there for them, writing those letters can draw out all kinds of questions -- Will I say the right thing? Will telling them a memory cause them more pain? Should I call instead? Should I be doing more?

Those questions all seem to be answered in the correspondence to Jackie Kennedy. Whether they are misspelled or poetically written, all of the words are just right because it is clear they are authentic, honest, and most importantly, just put on the page.

Of course, there are many grand and extensive ways to offer yourself to someone who is suffering a loss. But, as these letters to the Kennedy family reveal, even the simplest sentiments from strangers can leave an imprint, even 50 years later.

Perhaps these excerpts from 47-year-old letters to Jackie Kennedy will inspire you to connect -- open-heartedly and just as you are -- with someone you know who is suffering pain or loss.

From a letter by second grade teacher and mother of a graduate student, Irene Lowry on 12/7/63

Dear Mrs. Kennedy:
This is not the first letter I have started to you, for twice in the weeks that have passed I have attempted to write, but could not. I think that the numbness and shock of personal grief which has been felt by the whole nation and the rest of the world had its grip on my own heart in such a way that words could not be found to express it...I do hope that some day this [letter] may reach you, to bring you our love, and our earnest prayer that you will always remember he is not lost to you -- nor to us. And what he meant to our Nation will live on -- through graduate students, their teachers, and through little children who will learn through their teachers, and parents and others, the concepts of greatnesswhich were so much a part of your dear husband.

From a letter by Larry Toomey on 11/22/63

My dear Mrs. Kennedy.
Even as I write this letter, my hand, my body is trembling at the terrible incident this afternoon...I'm writing, I know, but what I want to say, I can't put into words. Perhaps you can read between the lines. Not just "I'm sorry to hear..." but more.

From a letter by Ira Seiler, M.D., who resuscitated the Kennedy's newborn son, on 11/28/63

Dear Mrs. Kennedy,
Your grief is also my grief; your loss is also the world's loss.

From a letter by Ernan H. Smith on 12/25/63

Dear Mrs Kennedy
You have never mett me and probbely never will.

And as you are such a bussy woman, I hope you will pardon my intrusion upon your time...

I myself am just a nobody from nowhere, but I do want you to know that we on the lower levels are having our hearts bleed for you and the Nation...

And I know that we all feel the same toward you and your family as I do.

From a letter by Sue Ann Anderson, mother of three young children and recent Air Force widow

I have no words of wisdom nor no words of comfort. All I can tell you is for the first time since my husband's death can I feel for someone else. Though unimportant and of modest means, I feel so akin to you and wish I could somehow help....My whole self goes out to you.

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[via: New York Times]