Why you should write
A condolence letter is a way to express your sympathy for a person who is grieving the death of a loved one. It can be comforting to the recipient to know that they are in your thoughts; you are acknowledging their grief. Additionally, your letter honors the person who has died. Your note of sympathy won’t alleviate the grieving person’s pain, but it will provide a measure of comfort during the grief process.
Why you might want to write a shorter note instead of a letter
If you do not know either the deceased person or the recipient of your note well, and your statement of sympathy is a social formality, write a short note instead of a longer letter. Follow the same guidelines (below) for the content of a condolence letter, focusing on items 1, 2, 3 and 6.
When you should not write a condolence letter
It is generally not appropriate to write a sympathy note to someone you do not know or with whom you have only a passing acquaintance. In fact, a research study of the impact of an intensive care physician or nurse writing a condolence note to relatives of people who died in an intensive care unit increased the recipients’ depression and PTSD symptoms.
What you should include in a sympathy letter
Finding the right words to write in a sympathy letter can be difficult for many of us. The emotion of sympathy may come easier than expressing that emotion. You will want to be sincere and genuine, while being sensitive to the recipient. You may feel more comfortable about your message if you write out a draft first before copying it neatly. Think about what you would want to hear from a friend, family member or coworker if you were in the letter recipient’s place. Your words should come from your heart; there is no need to be fancy.
Yes, sympathy cards are available in stores, but they are entirely too impersonal. You can use one, but should include a handwritten note on the card, or a handwritten letter on a piece of stationery folded inside the card.
The letter can be addressed to the single grieving person or to the family as a whole.
Here are the six common components of a condolence letter.
- Acknowledge the death. Don’t use euphemisms for death; we all understand what they mean. Personalize your letter by using the name of the person who has died.
- Express sincere sympathy. (Remember, you do not know how the recipient of your letter is feeling, so you can admit that.) It is usually not appropriate to empathize.
- Provide a detail about the person who has died. If you knew him or her, write some of your memories of that person. What were his or her special qualities? If you only know the letter’s recipient, write about how much the person who died meant to the recipient.
- Remind the person you are writing to of their own strengths and good qualities. This can help them remember or learn how to deal with their grief.
- Give a concrete offer to help, if you can. Think of specific practical assistance you can provide.
- End your letter with an active thought, hope or statement of support. Show that your letter is not meant to end your involvement with the recipient. Remember that your letter is intended for the living, not the dead.
There are many online templates for condolence letters. Feel free to use one that offers a fill-in-the blank format, but personalize it as much as you can.
What you should not include in a condolence letter
Unless you are a member of the same faith as the recipient of the letter, avoid any religious wording or overtones. You should also avoid trite phrases such as “it’s for the best” or “these things happen for a reason.”
Remember that everyone grieves in their own way and at their own pace. Provide support, but don’t be pushy. Avoid discussing the cause of death.
Don’t make a generic offer of help such as, “Call me if there is anything I can do.” This puts the burden of calling on the person who is grieving. Instead, be specific with offers such as “I will bring a tray of cookies over tomorrow for your guests,” or “I will stop by next week to mow your lawn (or take you grocery shopping).”
Another thing to remember about supporting someone who is grieving
Before you begin writing your condolence letter, enter your friend's name into your calendar approximately 3 months and 6 months from the date of the death. This will remind you to make contact again. Many grieving people have felt that they are surrounded by support and love in the days immediately following their loss, but then they find themselves grieving and feeling alone in the weeks and months following, as if everyone seems to have forgotten the cause of their grief. Be a good friend and offer ongoing support.