Sympathy Card

By Helen Regan

I gave you a sympathy card when your brother died. I wrote, “I’ll always remember John for his brilliant smile.” 

It was a lie.

Truthfully, I’ll always remember John exactly how he looked when you took me into your home, into his room, and gestured toward his contorted, lifeless body.

“My brother’s dead,” you said when I answered the door, your chin wobbling, eyes wide, and arms in their usual slump at your sides. I’d just had a Sainsbury’s delivery and I thought perhaps the knock at the door was the delivery guy with a forgotten turnip. Not this. As I followed you down my path and then along yours, I made an unnecessary comment about how I was wearing Christmas slippers, like you’d even noticed, or even cared. 

You’ve been my neighbour for almost a year, but we’re not those kinds of neighbours that are in and out of each other’s homes. You don’t find that as much nowadays. Even if it was commonplace I would’ve avoided every invite for a weak cup of tea (you look like you make weak tea) and certainly never have extended an invite to you. You like to talk about damp too much, and you think the ground is contaminated. So as my foot breached the threshold of your doorway something changed. I don’t know what that is, when you enter someone’s space and it changes something between you. Like a connection that’s pulled a little tighter between two souls, a warmth, an honour…or in this case, just the incredibly awkward feeling of being somewhere unfamiliar, in close proximity to someone you only usually see outdoors. Of course, it was awkward. You were inviting me in to see your brother’s dead body after all. 

You navigated the rabbit warren hallway to your brother’s bedroom with ease, while I lagged behind, taking in the badly fitted laminate flooring and the smell of damp. This was definitely a house where only middle-aged men lived. Not a single painting or photo on the walls, not one ornament or trinket. Everything was just a bit yellow-beige, which coincidentally was the colour of your brother’s face when I finally found the room you were standing in. 

“He’s cold,” you said, holding his wrist that dangled over the edge of the bed, gesturing as though I should feel for myself. 

I was happy to take your word for it. “Is that how you found him?” Stupid question – what did I think you’d done? Take your brother’s body from a peaceful sleeping position under the covers, and flung him about a bit to create the story I was seeing? A man, getting up earlier this morning, throwing the covers off and swinging his legs over the edge of the bed, before presumably having a heart attack and falling back, body twisted, head not quite on the pillow. 

“Look, that’s his catheter,” you said, pointing to the tube leaving the bottom of his pyjama leg. I’m not sure why you felt this was relevant. You turned away. And then you sobbed. Your body heaved with each mournful sound that left your chest. So I hugged you. I stood and hugged you by your brother’s dead body, looking over your shoulder at the way his mouth gaped, a distorted O, jaw slack and heavy. Thankfully his eyes were closed. Maybe you did that. And then, that hopelessness that comes with grief exploded within you, “What am I going to do? What am I going to do?”

I had no answer to your question, so it seemed an appropriate time to offer you a cup of tea. I’d make you a strong cup because I think you needed it. 

Before I could even put the kettle on, a relative arrived and ushered me out of the door. I pottered back down the path in my Christmas slippers, leaving you and your grief and your yellow-beige brother behind. 

I left with a brief window into one of the darkest moments of your life. 

The following day I picked up a crap sympathy card from the shop because they’re all crap, they never say enough or say the right thing. As I wrote ‘Dear Billy,” I thought I’d have something profound to say, I thought we’d have connected in a way that meant I could write something specifically for you, to console you, as though those five minutes of standing together beside your dead brother would have changed…something. But you’re still just the bloke from next door. And I’m still just the woman you live next to. And your brother did have a brilliant smile, but he was also the first dead body I’d ever seen that hadn’t been primped and preened by an undertaker. He was the first I’d seen like that.

Dear Billy, 

I’ll always remember John half-hanging out of the bed, three hours dead.

Thinking of you,


Helen Regan is a writer and storyteller who lives with her partner Eilidh in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. As part of She Said Storytellers Helen has directed, performed, and held workshops in the local area. Helen is a keen gardener, her best friends are two chocolate Labradors, and she can often be found crocheting massive blankets. @helenregan_

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