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What to Say in a Sympathy Note

The dos and don’ts of giving condolences

While we are often at a loss for words when talking to someone who has lost a loved one, writing a sympathy note can be equally challenging. However, there are some basic guidelines that we can follow. To begin with, it is important that you acknowledge the death by sending a note or a card. Clients tell me that when they are feeling down, being able to re-read the sentiments in cards helps them feel better and as though they are not alone. The fact that you took the time to buy a card or sit down to write a note makes them feel that you really care.

Aaron Burden/Unsplash
Source: Aaron Burden/Unsplash

The most optimal time to send a note is within the first several weeks. Even if you have been at the funeral and seen the bereaved, the card and sentiment is always appreciated. In a world where most communication is typed, if at all possible the note should be handwritten. Handwriting the note gives it a more special meaning. While there are some beautiful sentiments expressed in the sympathy cards you can buy in stores, the bereaved say that a personal note makes it more meaningful for them. The note does not have to be long. Some people might say “my thoughts and prayers are with you,” “my heart goes out to you,” or “wishing you peace and comfort.” While these notes convey your concern, a longer note can have more meaning for the bereaved.

In writing the note, it is important that you use the deceased’s name, such as “I was so sorry to hear of David’s passing.” Some people feel reluctant to use the deceased’s name, but the majority of bereaved want to hear their loved one’s name whether in a note or in conversation. After this, there can be an expression of your sympathy. Including a personal story about the deceased and something special that you felt about them is also appreciated. Write about some of your favorite memories of the deceased. Humorous stories can help brighten the mourner’s spirit, but keep it brief and appropriate. Finally, you can offer your support. Be specific and say what you want to do and when you are going to do it, such as “I will cook dinner for you Saturday,” or “I will clean your house Monday morning.” Being specific makes it easier on the mourner. Many people are reluctant to ask for help. They are concerned that it would be a burden and do not want to to impose on others.

There are also some things you want to avoid saying in a condolence letter. In an earlier post, I talked about what to say and not say to the bereaved. The same principles apply in writing the condolence letter. Try to avoid saying things like “I know how you feel.” The problem with this is that you do not really know how the person feels, just because you may have experienced a similar situation. Grief is different for everyone. Another example is “God needed another angel.” While this may be meant to be comforting, it usually has the opposite effect. “She is in a better place now” is another comment that upsets people because they feel that the best place for the deceased was here with them. If it is a parent who has lost a child, do not say that they can always try again. This tends to trivialize the loss. Now is also not the time to use your note to catch the bereaved up on what is going on in your life, and telling the person that they need to move on with their life has no place as an expression of sympathy.

In writing a condolence note, you do not want to say anything judgmental or controlling. Your comments should be supportive, considerate and caring. Just speak from your heart.

More from Marilyn A. Mendoza Ph.D.
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