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What to Write in a Sympathy Note

The sympathy note that goes along with a floral arrangement or one that you write in a card you send in the mail has one simple rule, says the Emily Post Institute: Say what you truly feel.

Many of us are afraid we’re going to say the wrong thing. “Who knows what to say when someone dies? Often, not knowing what to say, we put off writing the note and eventually don’t say anything. The intention to write is there,” but knowing what to say “isn’t easy or obvious,” says author Kathleen Buckstaff.

Why It’s Important

Expressing sympathy can feel awkward and uncomfortable, but reaching out in this way to the loved ones of the deceased will mean more than you’ll probably ever know and help them in their grieving process. Our first instinct may be to stay away and that response is the “opposite of what most people need,” says Buckstaff. “An act of kindness is enough. A few sentences are enough.”

Silence from friends can hurt, says Buckstaff. “It is far better for friends to say something to someone who is grieving than to not say anything. Reaching out…is important to do, even if it feels awkward, even if you don’t know what to say.”

Even if your message is short, “The simple act of sending the card lets your recipient know you care,” says the greeting card company Hallmark. “You can absolutely be brief and still come across as warm and caring.”

3 Ways to Start

Find a quiet place to sit down for a few minutes and reflect on the person who has died, as well as the person you’re sending the note to. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable, says Buckstaff, who makes tea and finds some chocolate when she’s facing this task.

Then, write what you feel. Include something about the person who has died if you knew them, or included offers to help. For example:

  • Is there something you appreciated about the deceased? “Jane was always so positive, and she will be greatly missed,” or “Bob always had a kind word to say.”
  • Is there something he/she did for you or you participated in together? “I’ll always remember the time Tom and I went to Daytona after graduation.”
  • Offer to help. “Thinking of you. I’ll stop by the house Thursday to bring dinner” or “I’ll babysit the kids Monday.”

If you can’t think of anything, a single sincere line is really all you need to write. A simple, “We love you and are here for you any time for anything.” Or just “Thinking of you.”

Using Humor: If it’s appropriate to the deceased, you can use humor, but carefully depending on your relationship with the surviving loved ones. Excellent examples of humorous cards can be found at emilymcdowell.com.

One such card: “I wish I could take away your pain. Or at least take away the people who compare it to the time their hamster died.” McDowell writes, “When your spouse or child or friend or parent has died, it is never, ever helpful to hear this kind of comparison” and someone close to you who has experienced this will appreciate this type of card.

10 Ways to Close

  • With sympathy
  • With deepest sympathy
  • With heartfelt sympathy
  • With caring
  • With love at this sad time
  • Sharing your sadness
  • Thinking of you
  • God bless
  • Lifting you up in prayer
  • My sincere condolences

What Not to Write

Sometimes things we write might make the recipient feel worse or even minimize what they are feeling simply because we are trying to avoid an uncomfortable situation to lessen the impact it has on us. Remember, get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This isn’t about you, but about the loved one of the deceased. Some things to avoid writing (check out our other tips on what to say to someone who’s suffered a loss here):

  • “I know how you feel.” You don’t really know how anyone else feels. Everyone handles grief and emotions differently, even if you’ve had a similar experience.
  • Avoid focusing on the pain of the loss or the manner of death. You may be tempted to write, “What a terrible tragedy” or “What a terrible loss.” Focus instead on the positive things about the person who died.
  • “You should make sure you get out of the house” or “you should” anything. Offer comfort and support, not advice.
  • “You will really feel sad for a few months and then start to feel better” or “the holidays will feel the hardest for you.” Don’t predict how their journey through grief will go. Yes, it’s true there are five stages of grief, but we all go through them at a different pace and in different ways for different reasons.

When Should You Send a Sympathy Card?

A sympathy note can be included with flowers or plants you send to the visitation or funeral service, in a separate card, or both. Ideally, send a sympathy card within the first two weeks after a death, but sending one weeks, months or a year after a death is acceptable too. Offering support on birthdays, holidays or anniversaries will probably come at a time when that extra support is needed. Examples:

  • “It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a year since we said good-bye to Mary. Letting you know I’m thinking about you.”
  • “I know Christmas won’t be the same without your dad. You’re in my thoughts and prayers, especially through the holidays.”

Is Email Ok?

If you are normally in touch with a person via email, it’s ok to send a written condolence by email, but follow it up with a handwritten note immediately after, says the Emily Post Institute.

However you send your condolence, know that the person receiving it will appreciate it if your message is honest, sincere and from the heart.

“Deep insight alert coming up: life is so messy and imperfect and ridiculous. You can’t stage it. You can’t plan for it. It’s happening. It will break your heart and kick you in the throat and then make you laugh.” -Nora McInerny Purmort

By Carrie Phelps, Sunset Contributer