Helpful Hints

helpful hints when offering messages of sympathy
  • • Handwrite your letter of sympathy, unless the person to whom you are writing is a business associate/client/supplier/etc. In any case, add at least a line or two of your own to any pre-printed card's message.

  • • If a suicide, offer your sympathy as you would to any other bereaved family, but in this case, avoid the phrase "I was shocked to hear" about person's death. Many survivors feel guilty, rejected, confused, and need to know that you are thinking of them. Don't ask questions, dwell on the suicide, or speculate about how it could have been prevented; instead, talk about how the person touched your life, or share a fond memory, or express your sympathy for the bereaved's pain.

  • • If a miscarriage or stillbirth: sympathize as you would for the death of any child. Avoid these distastefully common phrases lacking tact: "You already have two children--be grateful for what you have"; "This may have been nature's way of taking care of something that wasn't developing properly"; "You're still young, you can try again"; or the worst, "Don't feel too bad; after all, it isn't as though you lost a child."

  • • Reread your note as though you are the one receiving it. This will ensure that you write something appropriate and not something awkward, pitying, or tactless.

  • • Responding to news of a separation or divorce: whether the person is "better off" or not, life changes involve losses for your friend, and therefore some acknowledgement of the difficult period of adjustment and a message of support may be welcome. If you know the person well enough and if appropriate, let the person know that you have confidence in their choices and their ability to move on.

  • • In the case of business associates or employees who have lost someone dear to them, write as you would for friends or relatives, although your note will be shorter and more formal. As you aren't close to this person, it is enough to say that you are thinking about them at this time. Extend sympathy on behalf of the company, and convey condolences to other members of the person's family.

  • • The death of a companion animal can be a devastating loss; whether you identify with the feelings or not, reaching out and expressing sympathy in a note is a loving, respectful gesture much appreciated.

  • • If you choose to use references to religion in your letter of condolence, be sensitive to the religious orientation of the bereaved. It would be most unusual, however, to offend anyone by offering your prayers as a personal act of love. Discrepancies of religious belief matter little if your effort to console is an authentic one and your espousal of beliefs is not strongly contrary to those of the bereaved.

  • • If you have suffered the loss of a loved one, your insights may be very helpful to the bereaved. In sharing your bereavement remember that each loss is unique. Share the experience, but donít weigh or compare it with theirs. In our talks with bereaved persons, the well-intended phrase that most often angers is "I know (understand) exactly how you feel." The bereaved is not interested in a discourse on your suffering. They are likely, however, to be grateful for your intimate understanding of the pain of loss and may find inspiration in seeing how you have coped. For example, "When Bobby died, for months I thought my life was over. Then one morning, I saw the sun streaming through the kitchen window and I was, again, glad to be alive."

  • • On occasion the words of another may touch a sentiment that strikes a chord in your heart. By all means, use them--the purpose in writing a letter of condolence is to convey your sympathy as authentically and caringly as possible. If a poetís words echo your own message, it is a gift.

    It may seem surprising, but those in grief have also told us how inspiring and healing historic letters can be. Many of these historic letters nourish the spirit and have the potential to create a deeper realization of the universal nature of grief. Some of these letters touch our souls, lifting us out of unawareness and into awareness, out of pain and into gratitude. Although the letters have been written in the distant past, their expressions of sympathy may capture what you wish to convey. (Art of Condolence)