helpful hints when offering messages of sympathy

There is no 'right' way of expressing sympathy through the written word. There are, however, a few helpful rules of etiquette that have evolved through social tradition:

1. To whom does one write?

A letter of condolence is most often written to the bereaved person with whom you have had the closest relationship. If you knew the deceased well, but do not know members of the surviving family, it is still a gracious gesture to write a condolence letter. In writing to a married person who has lost a parent, you may write to the one whose parent died, or, if the other partner was close to the deceased, the letter may be addressed to both.

Surviving children who have lost either a parent, grandparent, or sibling are often overlooked in letters of condolence. Acknowledging their grief with either specific mention of their name in a letter to the family or a personal note addressed to the child is thoughtful and important.

Should a letter of condolence be written to the surviving member of a divorced couple when the former spouse dies? In many instances, yes. If the couple has maintained a friendly relationship since the divorce, a letter is likely to be appreciated. If in doubt, write.

2. What time frame is appropriate?

Write promptly upon hearing the news. It is best not to wait for the shock to wear off, and do not use the excuse of waiting for the 'right words' to come. If you write while your heart is full, your letter will be far more likely to express, in a natural way, the sincere sympathy you feel. Every effort should be made to send letters of condolence within two weeks of your learning of the death. Consider six weeks the outside limit of appropriateness for most situations.

3. What kind of stationery is appropriate?

Any standard stationery is suitable, but typical colors include white, gray, cream, or pastels. Personalized stationery is also appropriate. Bold patterns and colors generally should be avoided.

Although not required, traditionally, letters of condolence are handwritten, especially by close friends. A handwritten letter of condolence lends a warm touch that is more personal. Government and business organizations usually have their letters typed, and this is acceptable.