An outpouring of grief

  • Article by: SUSAN HOGAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 12, 1997 - 11:00 PM

Day after day, people waited for hours to write farewell messages to Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. Some scrawled intimate notes that rambled for pages. Others chose their words sparingly.

Until these women's deaths, the practice of pouring out emotion onto the blank pages of so-called condolence books was largely unknown. At St. James Palace in London, initially only five books were set aside for Princess Diana's mourners to sign.

But after throngs of people gathered to write messages -- 50,000 people the first week -- scores more books were added. And almost immediately, people began lining up in cities around the world to do the same. Suddenly, the concept of condolence books had become part of a common, universal vocabulary.

Death educators say the instant popularity of condolence books in the past two weeks reflects shifting values in how people grieve. While sending sympathy cards or signing names in funeral home registries has long been common, writing lengthy, personal messages in condolence books is relatively new.

But it may become more common now that the deaths of Princess Diana and Mother Teresa have prompted droves of people to put their grief into words like never before.

At the capitol in St. Paul, more than 4,200 people filed into the rotunda two days last week to sign books for Diana. At Sunset Memorial Park in St. Anthony, an estimated 12,000 mourners brought letters or signed books.

Though most of the mourners had not met the princess, their messages were personal, as though a family member had died. Some drew hearts on the page; others pasted their photos alongside their words. Children too young to write simply drew pictures.

Outside the Cathedral of St. Paul this week, Bob Hatchel from Stillwater wiped away tears after writing his message for Mother Teresa in one of two large books displayed in a side chapel.

"Dear Mother Teresa," it said. "We love you. Please remember us in your prayers."

Hatchel, a retired accountant, made the 20-minute drive from his home because he wanted to pay a final tribute to a woman he'd long considered a saint.

"I just needed a place to pay my respects," he said. "She was somebody you tried to model your life after. I felt like I was writing directly to her."

Only 34 years ago, Jacqueline Kennedy's stoicism in the wake of her husband's assassination became the model for handling grief. But at Princess Diana's funeral, mourners wept openly, rejecting the royal family's restraint.

"To see somebody holding a sign that said, 'Let the boys cry' spoke volumes about how people's view of grieving has changed," said Paul Johnson, a Twin Cities death educator.

"Today, the attitude leans more toward letting people express their grief."

Psychologist Gail Noller of Coon Rapids said the signing of condolence books gives the public a sense of shared grief. Writing intimate messages in a common book creates a more powerful bond than signing names to registries or cards ever could.

"It's kind of like when employees or neighbors come together to sign a single card," said Noller, who's on the board of the Minnesota Coalition for Death Education and Support. "There's a sense that we're all in this together."

Last week's lines at the state capitol were long, but reverent. Some notes were addressed to Princess Diana, some to her sons, and some to other members of England's royal family.

"I don't know what emotions the writing tapped, but it was genuine and it worked," said Wes Skoglund, DFL-Minn., who helped organize the effort. "We had expected them to sign their names and leave. But almost everyone wrote a message."

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