Update October 2015: please note that although this article is still helping many people like you, I have written an updated article on this topic which includes more information about what to write in our increasingly important online environment. Click here to see that article.
Ah, this is a difficult one – when someone has died and you want to write a letter of sympathy with his or her relatives and friends.
For a list of all 12 articles in this series on how to write well to people dealing with death, bereavement and other life sadness, click here.
Perhaps first of all we should consider what is the purpose of a card or letter of condolence?
Ironically, perhaps, it has little to do with the deceased and everything to do with the people left behind. The idea is to show your care and support for them at their time of loss, and make them feel that you appreciated the person and his/her contribution to life.
Here are my key points that I try to express when someone has passed away and I write such a letter or note:
**So sad to see/hear of your loss
**What the deceased meant to me (positive and even amusing if possible)
**Something uplifting (if possible)
**Thinking of you at this tragic time
This is a time when outside help may possibly offer a guideline or two, but essentially you’re on your own if you want to say something in your letter about the person who has died, that will have real meaning for the bereaved people.
No-one other than you can know what your relationship was with the deceased and his/her relatives and friends, and using someone else’s description about someone else – e.g. from a ready-made suggestion on a website – will never accurately describe how you felt about the person concerned.
Also see: How To Write A Death Announcement
Of course, you can always chicken out of the personal letter and send a “with sympathy” card, and in fact if you didn’t know the deceased or his/her family well, that’s probably a more appropriate choice.
Here are some examples of how you could approach a handwritten note using my 4-point structure above. These examples are based on real condolence notes and letters I have written in the past and I know have been appreciated by their recipients:
Dear XXX – I was so saddened to hear the news about Bert. He was very dear to me, as you know, and I’ll always remember how much fun we had when I would take him for consultations about his hearing aids. I know you’ll miss him terribly, but he was a very lucky man to live such a long and healthy life and have you guys to love and support him. Thinking of you…Sz xx
Dear YYY- I was very shocked and upset to hear that you have lost ZZZ. I knew she was ill but I didn’t realize she had so little time left. She was a brilliant woman and I’ll truly miss our rides out together on the horses. She may have had life snatched away from her early, but I know the years you and she were together were the best ones of her life. She was very lucky to have you – and knew it. With every sympathy and love … Sz.
Dear AAA – So sorry that your Dad has passed away. I know you were expecting it to happen at any time but I remember from losing my own Dad that this doesn’t make it any easier when it finally does occur. Thank Heavens it was peaceful and that he went knowing how much he was loved and supported by you all. My thoughts and sympathies are with you, BBB and your Mum right now. Sz xx
Dear CCC – I was very saddened to read of your husband’s passing. As you may know he was my accountant for many years and always looked after my business affairs to perfection, with unfailing accuracy and patience at my disorganised book-keeping… I know he had a very happy family life and was devoted to you all – lucky man. With my sincere condolences at this sad time, Suzan St Maur.
Letter or note?
Although it’s considered proper to write a letter – or longer version of the condolence notes I’ve outlined above in the case of someone whom you knew well, or whose family you know well, don’t write a book about him or her.
When people have just been bereaved they’re often in a “shell-shocked” frame of mind and it’s hard to take in more than bite-sized chunks of information at a time. Shorter is better.
Hopefully you won’t need to refer to this article too often, but bookmark it just in case – it may give you some inspiration which will comfort friends, family, colleagues and more.
What about electronic condolences?
You can even send an email (and of course there are some ready-to-wear options for this online…) Mind you, at times like this, electronic condolences don’t compare with the old-fashioned but comforting feel of a handwritten card or letter.
Nonetheless, with electronic communications becoming an increasingly accepted part of our daily lives, there is an argument for using the speed and immediacy of texts, emails, Facebook updates, etc. when you hear of someone’s passing, to let your bereaved friend or relative know briefly how you feel and how much you sympathize.
In a recent article in the UK’s Daily Mail, author Angela Epstein expresses her hurt feelings when some people texted their condolences to her when her mother passed away. “…I realise just how soulless it is to receive condolences – however well-meant – in short and impersonal, almost glib, one-liners, and often signed off with ‘lots of luv xx’,” she rues. And I understand how she must feel – particularly if that’s where the condolences stop.
Where I think electronic condolences can play a part, however, is with their immediacy; a short, sensitively written text, email or Facebook update to the bereaved as soon as you hear of their loved one’s passing tells them that you have stopped everything in your life to think of them, even if only for a few minutes.
There are a few essential rules here, to make sure the electronic messages say the right things to the recipient – not upset them, as in Angela Epstein’s case:
1.Only say you know what has happened and feel their pain – don’t use the text/email/Facebook update as a replacement for a full condolence note. E.g. “just heard your tragic news – so sad for you. Sz xx.”
2.Do not use this text/email to write about anything else other than the bereavement. Angela Epstein quotes an example that would be really hurtful to any recently bereaved person … “One 20-something friend expressed her sympathy in one paragraph of a Facebook message and in the next wondered, ‘while she was on’, if she could have the number of a mutual work contact.” Heartless, and tasteless.
3.Resolve to write a handwritten note, letter or card, and do it as soon as you can.