Writing a Condolence Note

By Helen Fitzgerald, CT

Focusing only on happy thoughts, it is usually easy for most of us to write an anniversary or birthday greeting. But writing a condolence note is something altogether different because, quite often, we don't know what to say. Feeling awkward and uncomfortable, we may even put the task off until the time to write has seemingly passed. Because of our own discomfort, the bereaved can be left feeling hurt and angry, their loss unappreciated. Friendships can suffer as well.

In today's commercial world, it's easy to find sympathy cards of every description but difficult to find something appropriate if you don't know what "appropriate" is. Was your relationship distant or close? Impersonal or intimate? Thinking about the nature of your relationship should help you find a message that comes close to what you might want to say.

It is what you, yourself, write that is the best condolence message. Reflecting your genuine thoughts and feelings, such a note might be only a few sentences. Or it might be a page or more, depending on what you want to say. However, it's generally a good idea to make your note fairly short because people in mourning often have difficulty concentrating on longer messages.

HOW TO GET STARTED

It is a good idea to refrain from using some of the common clichés. Here are a few of them:

"I know how you feel." You should not say this unless you really have had a similar experience. Also, grief is different for everybody. Even if you have had a similar experience, it may be better simply to say, "I, too, have lost a son, and I'm so sorry."
"She's in a better place." Meant to be reassuring, statements like this come across as hollow platitudes that neither comfort the bereaved, nor convey genuine feeling.
"He's at peace now." This is another example of a similarly hollow statement which is hardly helpful to a father after the suicide death of his son. His response could be: "I know he isn't in pain now, but he has passed his pain on to us and now we have to live with it."
"Put this behind you and get on with your life." What life? Such "advice" is hard to hear when the meaning of life is suddenly unclear. After a death, the bereaved often must redefine who they are and how they fit into the scheme of things.
"It's part of God's plan." What plan? God planned to have a little girl fall down a well or an airplane to explode in mid-air? Aside from the implied heresy, words like these are particularly hard to hear if the bereaved is already feeling some anger and disappointment toward God.
"Call if you need anything." It becomes obvious to the bereaved that people use this phrase to get themselves off the hook. The bereaved will probably not call.
"You should" or "you will." Comments that start this way are too directive and may not apply at all. If you want to give advice, start your sentence with, "Here is something for you to think about…"

Getting started is usually the hardest part. It is like an artist facing a large, blank canvas. Once that first brush stroke of paint has been applied, the picture begins to take shape. The following may be helpful to you in getting started:

"I'm so sorry to hear that John has died" may be all you need to start your message.
"You are in my thoughts and prayers" will work if it's true.
"We will all miss Sally; she touched so many of our lives" is good if that's how you feel.
"What I am feeling right now is hard to put into words." Since this is probably quite accurate, it won't hurt saying so.
"He was such a creative person, and I am so sorry he died." Addressing the qualities of the person who died will enable you to reveal indirectly how highly you valued that person.

No matter how you start, you might add a few sentences about your relationship with the deceased or stories of what you did together. Those in mourning want to hear stories about their loved ones. They want to see the deceased through the eyes of others. For example, a mother whose son had died found out that her son often stopped at the local nursing home on his way home from school, just to visit with the aging residents for a few minutes. This made her feel so pleased and proud of her son. Try to think of things like this that the bereaved will want to know.

Endings are important as well. Here are a few suggestions on ending your condolence note:

"Our love and support will always be here for you."
"I will be calling you next week to check in on you." Don't say this if you don't intend to follow through.
"I would like to drop by on Wednesday but will call first to see if that is a convenient time for you." Saying this tells the bereaved that your friendship continues as before. (Deaths sometimes change one's relationships.)
"Saturday is a free day for me to come over and help…" Specific offers of help mean something while general offers don't.
"I will keep you in my prayers." OK if true.

Difficult as they are to write, condolence notes provide us with ways to convey our love and friendship to others at times when they have the greatest need for what we have to offer. When such times arise, give it your best.

 

Related articles:

Why Write Sympathy Notes?

• Choosing the Right Condolence Stationery

• Memorable Condolence Notes

What to Say When Someone Dies Unexpectedly

What Not to Say


Also by Helen Fitzgerald:

Writing a Condolence Note to a Grieving Child or Teen

Helping a Bereaved Friend

Helping Your Grieving Parent

 

Helen Fitzgerald is a Certified Thanatologist, author and lecturer. Her books include The Grieving Child: A Parents' Guide, The Mourning Handbook and The Grieving Teen. She has appeared on the CBS Morning Show and the NBC Today Show and was previously the director of training for the American Hospice Foundation. You can ask Helen a question about dealing with grief and loss by visiting Ask Helen on the American Hospice Foundation website.


 

 Writing a Condolence Note was originally published on the American Hospice Foundation website.
© 2003. American Hospice Foundation. All Rights Reserved.
Because it can be difficult to find the right card with tasteful art and a thoughtful message, the American Hospice Foundation offers Comfort Cards.


Top Image: stock.xchng/mmagallan

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Comment by tom sandoval on November 21, 2011 at 4:18pm

  I want to say what a wonderful woman Janie was. I only wish that all could have known her when her beauty was external  and not just internal. She will never be far from my thoughts until I too go home to the Lord. I hope that the Lord made sure that she was not alone at the end.

Comment by charles harrison on August 21, 2011 at 12:43pm
We are saddened by the passing of our uncle James Alldredge and our prayers are with him in spirit and we pray for God to take his family in his hands and comfort them during their time of grief... The Harrisons
Comment by charles harrison on August 21, 2011 at 12:43pm
We are saddened by the passing of our uncle James Alldredge and our prayers are with him in spirit and we pray for God to take his family in his hands and comfort them during their time of grief... The Harrisons
Comment by Martha Cecilia Roman Valles on August 6, 2011 at 4:37pm

Tia Tichie:

Chalio, Mariana Armando y Yo, estamos contigo en estos momentos tan difíciles por los que estás pasando, queremos enviarte todo nuestro cariño y estamos confiados en que Dios en su Misericordia te dará el soporte que necesitas.

Si necesitas algo con toda confianza llama.

Lizzy, Christy, Stella, Omar and Leah les mandamos todo nuestro cariño a ustedes y sus familias.

Comment by Martha Cecilia Roman Valles on August 6, 2011 at 4:37pm

Tia Tichie:

Chalio, Mariana Armando y Yo, estamos contigo en estos momentos tan difíciles por los que estás pasando, queremos enviarte todo nuestro cariño y estamos confiados en que Dios en su Misericordia te dará el soporte que necesitas.

Si necesitas algo con toda confianza llama.

Lizzy, Christy, Stella, Omar and Leah les mandamos todo nuestro cariño a ustedes y sus familias.

Comment by Julie B. Alford on July 3, 2011 at 9:36pm

Hey Robin,

 

Tim and I are so sorry to hear about your sister's passing.  We know that you and your family are going through a tough time and want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.  We love you and pray that God's peace will be with you during this difficult time.

Comment by Julie B. Alford on July 3, 2011 at 9:36pm

Hey Robin,

 

Tim and I are so sorry to hear about your sister's passing.  We know that you and your family are going through a tough time and want you to know that our thoughts and prayers are with you.  We love you and pray that God's peace will be with you during this difficult time.

Comment by Jerry Kobernick on December 24, 2010 at 3:37pm

Sorry to read about your husband,  Aaron Kolkey.  Our prayers and thoughts are with you.

Shirley and Jerry Kobernick

Comment by Dionne Jordan on October 23, 2010 at 7:14am
To the family,
My thoughts and prayers are with you all during this time of need. We know that soon all death with come to and end. (Revelations 21:4) God knows the pain you are going through and soon he will do something about it. Not only will he end death but also, wipe all of our tears out of our eyes, and remove all pain.
Comment by Greg Purvis on July 13, 2010 at 12:08am
"You are in my thoughts and prayers" Wayne will be missed he was a great boss and a great person.
Comment by Sandi Speers Starwalt on June 6, 2010 at 6:03am
Steven I didn't get to say goodbye you left us early Staurday morning. You were only 40 years old when you left us March20 2010. Me your Dad, brother and grandma miss you so much every day. We only find comfort in know you loved us so much and you were so loved. Till we meet again my loving son.
Comment by Kayla on March 11, 2010 at 11:00pm
me and my family need help with our lost from my true love passing away
Comment by thomas carroll on November 18, 2009 at 4:48am
tom has been my and my familys lawyer for over ten years now hes help me with my alcoholism and my mistakes i've read his books and learned alot and for that i will always be thankful.
Comment by craig jenkins on November 15, 2009 at 7:27pm
On November the 11,2009,I lost my Grandpa at a Nursing home.He was like my real father.He raised me and my brother since we were two days old.I was going to try to get him out but they heavly had him on drugs/medication forcing him not to eat and drink. I am so sad now I lost my favorite family member.May God be with him.I need support from others because my heart is very broken.
Comment by Chelle on October 28, 2009 at 12:07pm
I'm deeply sorry for your loss, i've lost a few people dear to me and my parents this year. I wanted to share a comforting thought "God will wipe out every tear from their eyes, and death will be no more, neither will mourning nor outcry nor pain be anymore." Revelation 21:4 :) Your family is in my prayers!
Sincerely Chelle
Comment by David W Linder on October 19, 2009 at 1:13pm
Wanted to express the deepest sympathy to the family. I know and share the friendship of your GrandDaugher Letty Cruz God Bless all the Family.
Comment by nina diamond on October 13, 2009 at 11:25am
Your faminly has lost a true shinging light-But he has left you the great gift of your grand child- you will never forget your son - the sorrow will become less as time passes- but the wonderful memories will all ways be there- I still think of my dear husband every day and it has been 23 years- greave in your oun way- do what makes you feel better- God be with your family.
Sincerly
The Diamond Family
Comment by Don Averitt on April 16, 2009 at 7:11pm
Aunt Susan, you were so precious to us. Our love and sympathy to you nieces and nephew.
Love,
Beth and Don Averitt, Don R., Mark and Susan
Comment by Bill G. Vermilya on March 16, 2009 at 11:42pm
I love you sweetheart. I miss you and think about you everyday. We had a wonderful life together. I'll see you in that bright land. Your sweetheart!

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