You don’t need to be an award-winning writer to create an appropriate sympathy card or note of condolence. It’s not hard to add a few short sentences to customize a store-bought sympathy card to help lift the spirits of the mourners.
Make it easy on yourself by using journalism’s “Five Ws” to guide your way: Who, What, When, Where, and Why (slightly re-arranged). Younger generations, those more comfortable with texting than actually writing, can especially benefit from these tips.
What: Describe your reaction when you heard the news about the death. “I was shocked/saddened/surprised to hear about…” If you didn’t know the deceased, but know the mourner, you could write, “My thoughts are with you after I heard…” Don’t be afraid to use the “D” word – died, death, or demise.
Who: Identify the person who has died by name, or by the relationship, such as “your Dad,” “Grandma,” or “your husband/wife.” And don’t be afraid to use that person’s name in other communications with the mourners going forward. They may long to hear that person’s name spoken.
When: Write a card as soon as you learn of the death. If it’s been more than a week since the person died, you can say, “I only just heard the news today, or I would have contacted you sooner.” Supportive sympathy notes in the months after a death can also help. If sending a condolence note to mark the anniversary of the death or another milestone event, “It’s hard to believe it’s been (a year/current time frame) since he/she died.”
Where: A sentence or two about the impact the deceased made in your world. This impact can be related to work, a cause the person supported, family connections, as a long-time friend or neighbor. If you didn’t know the deceased, focus your comments on the mourner and their role in your life. Sample “where” sentences can say things like:
- (Name) was a legend at work. His fondness for a certain red stapler lives on.
- I met (name) through our support of the local BioPark society. Specifically, we were both Zoo Parents of the capybara.
- After living next door to (name) for 20 years, I couldn’t ask for a better neighbor.
Why: What was it about the person who died that made them special? Why are you sending a condolence note to the recipient? You might consider using sentences such as:
- We loved (name) and we’ll miss (him/her) so much.
- I always admired (his/her) (positive character attribute, such as sense of humor, generosity, knowledge).
- (Name) was a good person and I’m so glad I had the chance to know (him/her).
- In (name’s) honor, we have made a contribution to (organization).
- I treasure your friendship and wanted to let you know I’m thinking about you during this difficult time.
A line in support of the bereaved is also appropriate:
- Please let me/us know if you need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen.
- I’ll be in touch in another week or so to see how you’re doing.
- May I take you to lunch next week?
It doesn’t matter if you write a note of condolence on a sympathy card, on fancy stationery, or on simple notebook paper. Taking the time to write, address an envelope, and mail your communication speaks volumes. It may seem Old School, but it’s these personal touches that really say you care.
If you’re feeling eloquent, longer typewritten stories about the deceased and the family can become a treasured keepsake. Tales of family relationships, legendary events and ancestral history can help everyone feel more connected and supported.
And yes, you may send an email, but remember the family’s routine has been shattered and they may not be online for a while to see and respond to your note. If you want to send a message via social media, unless the mourner has posted a public announcement for all to see, use private messaging functions.
You can apply these guidelines to sympathy phone calls as well. The key is to connect with your fellow human beings who are hurting and let them know of your concern and care. Someday, your caring gestures will be returned in kind.
Gail Rubin, Certified Thanatologist and The Doyenne of Death®, is a pioneering death educator. She uses humor, funny film clips, and outside-the-box activities to teach about planning ahead for end-of-life. She coordinates the award-winning Before I Die New Mexico Festival, and Albuquerque Business First recognized her with their 2019 Women of Influence Award. She’s also the author of three books on end-of-life issues and a Certified Funeral Celebrant. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
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