Lucy Vickery

Spectator competition winners: how not to write a letter of condolence

Spectator competition winners: how not to write a letter of condolence
Cynthia Nixon as Emily Dickinson, who excelled in the art of condolence. Credit: TCD/Prod.DB / Alamy Stock Photo
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In Competition No. 3252, you were invited to write a letter of condolence on the mis-fortune of an acquaintance which, intentionally or not, would have the effect of lowering rather than raising the spirits.

An example of how not to write a condolence letter, according to New York-based funeral director Amy Cunningham, was Nancy Mitford’s upbeat ending to a letter to her cousin, who had just lost her husband: ‘It’s nice that Decca is coming over for a long visit. Why don’t you come to Versailles with her – I would put her in a hotel and you could stay with me. Think of it.’ It doesn’t seem all that bad to me, but those looking for inspiration on how to craft the perfectly pitched expression of sympathy should, Cunningham said, turn instead to sad, sweet Emily Dickinson.

Honourable mentions to Lydia Tyler, Sue Pickard and Ben Hale; £25 each to the best of a mischievous bunch, printed below.

Dear Steve, 

Look, I’m so sorry, mate. I’ve just this minute heard the news that Catherine’s left you. I’d hate that to happen to anyone, but especially you, my best mate. You, me and Catherine, we go back such a long way, don’t we? She’s always been such a lovely girl – I can’t begin to imagine how you feel right now. She’s clever, funny, beautiful, kind. She’s just an all-round good egg. Okay, I guess you’ve had a few bumps in the road lately, but we all have those, don’t we? When you feel down, Steve, just remember all the good times. Anyway I’d better sign off now as I have to pick her up from the station and help her unpack. I’ll look after her, I promise. And if there’s ever anything Catherine and I can do for you, Steve my old mate, just give us a call. 

David Silverman
Dear Kelvin  

I was gutted to hear that you and Karen totalled your camper-van on the Lake District trip, and that you missed out on Windermere. I remember visiting it as a child – those mysterious, calming waters, and the wildlife – otters! Red squirrels! Red deer! We used to picnic daily and sail early each evening. Fabulous. You must both give it another go when you’ve recovered from all the operations, especially the reconstructive facial surgery. How lucky we are to live in times when such things are possible. I’m no great believer in God, as you know, but I am sure he’ll be looking after you, and we send you our prayers. 


Hermione and I are off on a jolly soon, in our own van – not a patch on yours, no mod cons for us, alas! We’ll pick some daffs in your honour and send you postcards. Chin up! Henry 

Bill Greenwell
Wanda and I were so sorry to hear the sad news that you’ve tested positive for Covid. As you may recall, we had to stay home from her Uncle Algy’s funeral, and her Aunt Yvonne’s eight or nine months later, when the virus killed both of them in the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic, and graveside mingling would have been ill-advised. We’ve been more fortunate with the disease recently. Our daughter, her husband and their three children all managed to get infected, but our son-in-law is the only one showing any worrisome ‘long Covid’ signs. As for the two of us, the tests themselves are the worst we’ve suffered to date, and we shall continue welcoming the swabs up our noses for as long as it takes to weather all this. Discomfort and indignity are a small price to pay for the blessings of public health. Best wishes to you. 

Chris O’Carroll
We were devastated to hear your daughter Mimi has been dissuaded – by that supercilious Noël Coward, of all people! – from joining the theatrical profession. And after you’d put so much work in on her, too. We’re no impresarios but my Norman never lets me forget her performance as Fourth Shepherd in the school Nativity. Her line – and your prompting and direction of it – were the only things in the production that made it clean through his tinnitus. Mr Coward was right about Mimi’s expressive hands; anyone of vision would have cast them as Lady Macbeth’s or at least given her the title role in Dear Octopus. My Norman says don’t worry: even the lumpier type of girl can make it as a secretary now. If you must see her performing in the West End, I believe Selfridges are auditioning demonstrators for the new Hoover range. 

Adrian Fry
I’d like to offer my condolences on your loss, although it must be a relief in some ways. Nursing him must have been a burden. At least you won’t have to grieve. You’ve been doing that by inches since he was injured. Perhaps you’d bring our ladder back some time soon. I’m sure you’ve been busy since he fell off it, but now with time on your hands… and my husband would like to get on with painting our soffits. They’re looking a bit grubby. We thought white again. Must keep things going so’s not to let the neighbourhood down and it’s nice weather just now for painting – dry, not too hot, not too cold.  

Well, I must get on. Just thought I’d pop a note. I mean, what are neighbours for?  

Dorothy Pope
When you told me your ‘bad news’ last night I commiserated, but I begin to think I was too hasty. On one hand, your mother has been, to put it plainly, swindled out of your family’s savings; on the other, at her advanced age she is unaware of what she has done. She is not suffering. And perhaps you, in your wisdom, can learn from her simplicity. There is much pleasure in a lesser life, as I have found. Since my own jolly adventures in Macao and Las Vegas, I have been, I think, a cheerful chappie, never downbeat, never preachy. I am glad in a way that you can join me in a life that is exiguous, yet still content. I know I cannot help you, but I believe I can comfort you and cheer you, and remain – Your best (and poorest) friend, 

Roger Rengold

No. 3255: measure for measure

You are invited to submit a poem about imperial measures. Please email entries of up to 16 lines to by midday on 22 June.