Letter Writing: Sympathy Notes

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Getting mail is a ton of fun, but in an increasingly digital world, writing it can sometimes be hard. This blog post series about Letter Writing aims to make it easier.

A lot of what we once wrote for the mail is now communicated via a Twitter, a text, an email, a phone call- but here is one thing that should always be sent by mail (and additionally in person, when possible, but always also by mail)- sympathy cards. These are notes that should be sent out as soon as you hear the news, but unfortunately  they can be hard to write because- well, it is never a happy topic to be writing about, especially when one might also be grieving oneself. But, I can say from personal experience that such notes can be of great comfort to those close to a deceased person.

Good Night Open SkiesAs to the writing itself- these notes certainly don't have to be long. They can be as long or short as they need to be, really. If you are uncomfortable writing much, the greeting card industry has many lovely products to choose from; just make sure to still add a few personal lines. If you are choosing to write a bit more than can fit on a card, this is one instance where choosing the right stationary really matters. Most things can be jotted down on any old thing that's handy- post-it notes, lined notebook paper or funny cartoon stationary- but for sympathy notes choose tasteful stationary or good quality, unlined white paper. Also, handwritten notes will communicate a more personal touch in these circumstances than a typed letter will. Some people worry about the language and tone of a sympathy card. It is perfectly acceptable to use the word "death," but if it makes you uncomfortable common euphemisms are fine too. Keep the tone casual, as if you were talking to the letter-receiver. No need to write poems or use formal language unless that is part of your relationship to the note's recipient or part of your profession.

The contents of a sympathy note generally start with acknowledging the recipient's loss, referring to the deceased by name. If you knew the deceased person yourself, you can talk about the specific qualities of the person, and/or choose to share a special memory about that person. It can often be comforting to the recipient to reminisce, and to know that others have warm, positive memories of the person they are grieving for.  If you didn't know the deceased, simply skip that step rather than conjecturing about that person.  In closing, you can feel free to offer help, but make sure it is specific. Asking the bereaved to "call if they need anything," puts the burden on them. It can be awkward enough to ask for help when one is not feeling vulnerable. At a time of grief it is unlikelier still. Instead, offer specific help. For example, if one lives nearby an offer to babysit, or bring over food can be of great assistance.  Whether you live nearby or not, you can also promise to call on a specified day ("I will call to see how you are on Saturday.") However, only make these offers if you truly can follow through.  Also, if the family has asked for donations in lieu of flowers for the memorial, this might be a time to mention such a donation has been made.

There are, however, several things you should not say in a sympathy card. Do not attempt to explain the death or say that it was a positive thing (i.e. "It was God's plan," or even "He was in so much pain it is a blessing he's moved on"). Though you may believe these things are true or that they should be of comfort, people might interpret them differently. Such phrases too often come across as minimizing the person's loss, which is never anyone's intent! Along the same lines, avoid much religious talk unless you know the person and their spiritual beliefs well.  Also avoid saying you know how the grieving person feels; everyone experiences grief differently even if you have also lost a person with a similar relation to yourself. Lastly, though the benediction "sincerely" works in most circumstances, here it might be better to opt for a more personal closing such as "with warmest regards," or "kindest concerns."

If you are still looking for tips for writing sympathy notes, try reading these blog posts:

Writing Condolence Letters  from the Hospice Foundation
The Art of Letter Writing: The Sympathy Note from The Art of Manliness
How To Write a Sympathy Note
Condolence Letters

LETTER WRITING SERIES: THANK YOU NOTES | PERSONAL CORRESPONDENCE | LOVE LETTERS | SYMPATHY LETTERS | CONGRATULATORY LETTERS | POSTCARDS | LETTERS OF APPRECIATION | CORRESPONDENCE CHESS | GET WELL CARDS | LETTERS TO SICK CHILDREN | INVITATIONS | HOLIDAY LETTERS | LETTERS TO SANTA| LETTERS OF RECOMMENDATION | LETTERS TO THE EDITOR | CIRCLE LETTERS | LETTERS TO POLITICIANS | WRITING TO ADVICE COLUMNS | THE LETTER WRITING GAME | PENPAL LETTERS | LETTER OF COMPLAINT | COVER LETTERS | LETTERS TO PRISONERS | OPEN LETTERS | LETTERS TO FUTURE YOURSELF | LETTERS OF APOLOGY | "OPEN WHEN" LETTERS | FAN MAIL | GOOD BYE LETTER |

10 comments

  1. I always struggle with what to say when someone loses a loved one. Thanks for these tips!
    -Jessi
    haircutandgeneralattitude.blogspot.com

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  2. This is a great post. I never know what to say when sending a condolence card. These tips are so very helpful!

    xo

    Ashley

    Southern (California) Belle

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  3. Very helpful. I always feel awkward sending sympathy cards out - what to say is always such a delicate thing and is it appreciated or impersonal? Actually perfect timing for reading this b/c I need to get one out this week.

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    1. I'm glad this will be helpful to you, Marisa, though sorry to hear there has been a recent loss for you or someone you know. I'm sure they will appreciate hearing from you though!

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  4. I really like your advice of offering to help w/ something specific. I keep thinking of offering that to a coworker who lost her husband but hadn't so thank you for sharing this. i agree about writing it by hand also and to keep the same tone you use w/ the person.
    http://dusanabotswana.com

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    Replies
    1. I'm glad this helped you. It was interesting to research. I'm sure your co-worker will appreciate the help. I know we really appreciated it when my grandfather passed away.

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  5. I've recently struggled to get this right. Due to divorce drama from long before I was of the age of consent, I've basically been estranged from much of my family. A cousin of mine who lives near me in the city recently lost her mother, my Aunt, who I barely knew... and with all the odd family history, I really just felt like I didn't know what to say on a whole new level. Thanks for these tips and reminders. I'm taking them to heart!

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    Replies
    1. A hard situation; I'm glad that these tips could help in anyway.

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  6. Sending sympathy flowers to a funeral florist is an appropriate way to express your ... Browse through the pictures of funeral flowers below to find an arrangement.

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