What to write when someone has died

died,deceased,passed away,write,condolence,sympathies

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

died,deceased,passed away,write,condolence,sympathiesNo-one other than you can know just how a colleague fitted into your day-to-day working life, your hobby, your community work, your voluntary activities.

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.

You may also find the following articles helpful:
How to write a death announcement
How to write a letter of sympathy when someone dies
How to write a eulogy
How to write an obituary

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.




  1. This is really good Suze, I remember when my husband died in 1994 those little letters meant so much and also talking to the person afterwards, not crossing the road to the other side of the street, but that’s another story. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks, Rosie. I remember, too, when my parents died how comforting the notes were – especially the ones that shared an amusing or at least positive memory. And as for what to say to someone who has just been bereaved when you meet them face to face … I often find the best thing is to say nothing, smile, and give them a hug. Actions here can be more effective than words, I think. People who cross the road rather than figure out what to do or say are cowards.

  2. Good advice Suze, I am so crap in this area. I have to confess until I read this I had always done electronic or not at all 🙁

    • Obviously there are going to be times when you have no choice BUT to go electronic, because you don’t have the bereaved person’s home address – often the case with friends made via the online social media. In those instances, you just need to make your email as personal as possible, straight from your heart. The four-point structure I put in the article works for email too, by the way.

      • Great advise, But now i need some as a recipient of those cards! “How to write an effective thank you for your condolences”! Or should I?

        • That’s a good point, Steve. A lot depends on where you live and what the local traditions are. But here in the UK where I live, people don’t normally expect to be thanked for their condolence card or letter; they accept that being bereaved is an awful time for families and most of them won’t feel like writing more about it than they have to.

          However some bereaved families will either send out a short note, card or email saying something like, “Thank you so much for your kind thoughts at this sad time,” or they might put a small ad in the obituary section of their local newspaper saying something like “The family of the late (deceased’s name) would like to thank everyone for their kind wishes and support at this difficult time.”

          It really is entirely up to the bereaved person or persons. When in doubt, go with your instincts; if you feel you want to thank everyone for their support – and your lost loved one would have wanted you to – then go ahead.

    • Same thx you were so much help to me!!

      • So glad you found this article helpful, Jazzy. Take care.

        • Madelyn Underwood says

          my best friend killed her self and i could’t get there n time and now i feel like doing the same i can’t live without her

          • Of course you are devastated by the loss of your friend but even thinking of doing the same thing is wrong. On the contrary, now it’s up to you to live a good life not just for yourself, but for your friend, too. Live for her – let her memory live on through you. Please, Madelyn, if these thoughts of “doing the same” keep coming back to you, get help NOW from your family doctor or a college counsellor. You owe that to your friend, and to yourself. Suze St M.

  3. Thanks for the good tips.

  4. Dear Suze,
    Thank you for this advice. I have a relative whose partner has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Do you have any advice about how I should write to her specifically? I am having difficulty writing a letter without sounding like her partner is already deceased.

    • Hi Joanna
      It’s a very difficult one to write. However we can learn from a family I know here in England whose 48-year-old son was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumour, given about 12 months to live. His wife, parents and siblings made a major effort to just be together, go away for short breaks together and just spend quality time as much as possible. They didn’t allow themselves or him to become morose, but did silly things like play party games, go and eat fish and chips by the seaside, watch humorous movies, go for short walks and generally enjoy each other’s company as they probably hadn’t since the kids were little. When he eventually died, of course it was hard, but his brother said to me “at least we have spent as much time together as a family as possible, and it has been wonderful to do so – as families grow up you tend to drift apart but this has brought us back together and we all will value it forever.”
      Now obviously I don’t know your friend’s circumstances but could you perhaps pick up on some of those thoughts, maybe something like this:
      “Dear XXX
      I was so saddened to learn of XXX’s diagnosis. You must be heartbroken, as am I.
      It may not help you much right now but bear in mind that times like this can represent an important opportunity for you, XXX and your family to reconnect and spend time together, creating happy times that will cheer XXX as well as making lifelong golden memories for you all.
      Whether it’s about fulfilling a complex bucket list or just spending some quality time all together at home, those occasions will help XXX and create memories that truly matter.”
      Here you could perhaps ask if you can visit them. Many people in their shoes might be afraid to invite guests in the circumstances but probably will be thrilled to know that you want to see them.
      Hope that helps.
      Will send this to your email address as publishing it on here – am not sure if WordPress notifies people when a reply has been posted to their comment…
      All good wishes


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