No one likes to write a condolence note. What can you possibly say to someone who has just lost a loved one? In some societies, death is accompanied not just by sadness but by rejoicing – the deceased has gone on to a better place. We don’t do that so much.
Then my father-in-law passed away, and I learned that there really is a right way to do this. Some people I didn’t even know that well wrote lovely, sincere notes that showed they cared. Here’s what they said, and what I’ve learned to do since then.
Write it by hand. The entire point of writing a condolence note is to show that you care, which means this isn’t the time for email. (You can send a quick email, especially if there is something specific you can do to help, but you should still send a hand-written follow up.) Use decent stationery or a nice blank card. A sympathy card is okay, too, but add your own hand-written message on the inside. You don’t have to write a lot – three lines will do.
Start simply. There is a reason clichés become clichéd – because they work. I have written, “I am so sorry to hear of your loss,” more than a few times. You should use the deceased person’s name in the note, and this is an fine place to do it. So this could easily become, “I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your dear friend Edwin.”
Reminisce. If you know the person who died, share a fond memory, or mention something kind that he or she did.
If you didn’t know the deceased, write about their importance to the person you’re writing to. If your friend talked often about her great-aunt, for instance, but you never met her, the second line can say something like, “I know how much you looked forward to seeing her and enjoyed her tart sense of humor,” or whatever is appropriate.
If you have nothing specific to draw on and didn’t know the person, you can do what a senior person in my company did when my father-in-law died. The second line of his note read, “Although I never had the pleasure of meeting your father-in-law, at times like this, it feels like we are all family.” We worked in a very collegial environment. We didn’t know each other that well, but his words felt sincere and reassuring.
Or, mind your own business. Your friend may have had a difficult relationship with the loved one who passed away. These are especially tricky situations, because your friend will be grieving not only the loss of someone close to them but the relationship that could have been. So, after acknowledging the person’s loss, you could write something such as, “I hope you are receiving plenty of love and support during this difficult time,” which (I hope) shows sympathy for their situation without getting into the details of their relationship with the deceased.
Offer to help, and be specific. If you say, “Please feel free to call on me,” you probably won’t get a response. If you’re close enough to the person receiving your note, offer to babysit her kids, play host to visiting family, or whatever else seems appropriate.(You can do this verbally or in email too, of course). Otherwise, I’m old-school: When a baby is born, I bring food. When someone dies, I bring food.
Offer prayers or thoughts. If you are religious, note that you are praying for your friend and her family. If you’re not, you can still write that your friend and her family are in your thoughts.
Sign the card, “With deepest sympathies.”
Bonus: Those who follow strict etiquette will write back to each handwritten condolence note they receive. Some people may find this soothing, and others may find it an added burden during a time of grief. Let them punt this one. Somewhere on the card, note that no reply is required.
There’s no such thing as a ‘perfect’ condolence note, of course. But it’s not too hard to show you really care, which is what counts. — KW
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Images and photo courtesy of ivanmarianelli