Writing a sympathy note has never been easy. It’s a reminder of our own mortality and the possibility of loss. We also feel helpless in the face of someone else’s grief.
It’s fine to send an e-mail—I think a text is intrusive—when you first learn of the death, as in, “We just heard the terrible news. You are in our hearts.” A call is also OK if you know the person well. But don’t stop there.
Whether you use a blank notecard or a preprinted condolence card, it’s your personal handwritten message that gives meaningful comfort to the bereaved. People pull out sympathy notes to reread even 10 or 15 years after the death of a loved one. Online condolences are unlikely to be saved.
Start with a simple message such as, “Please accept my sincere sympathy on the death of your parent/spouse/loved one.” Then…
Share a memory or inspiration. If the bereaved is a relative or close friend, mention a memory you have of the deceased, as in, “He gave me such good advice” and share an anecdote or “She always made me laugh. I’ll miss that smile.”
When writing to your boss or a client/customer, your handwritten message can simply read “I’m thinking of you at this very sad time.”
Keep it short, unless you know the bereaved or knew the deceased well. Survivors appreciate just being in your thoughts, and you don’t want to accidentally say something inappropriate.
Offer specific help. Do not write, “Please let me know if there is anything I can do.” People who are bereaved have enough on their plates in the weeks and months after the loss of a loved one. If you really wish to help, suggest something specific, such as grocery shopping, preparing a meal or mowing the lawn.
What not to say: It’s so common to write, “I’m sorry for your loss,” but times have changed. These days, younger people may resent those words and feel, What are you sorry for? It’s not your fault. Think twice before mentioning God or religion, too, unless you’re certain the recipient is a believer. Americans are less religious today than ever before. And never say, “I know how you feel.” Survivors tend to believe their loss is singular.
Do try to write promptly after hearing of the death. Remember, too, that simplicity is key, especially in the saddest or most turbulent times.