So I wasn’t really planning on doing a lesson on how to write sympathy cards, but it occurred to me it’s a handy skill to have, and much more fraught with peril than a card of thanks.
The problem with writing sympathy notes is there are so many variables; it takes a lot more finesse than a regular card and there are a LOT more “don’ts” than “do’s” when it comes to the subtle art of sending condolences.
So let’s have a go.
Phrases That Ought Never Appear in Sympathy Notes:
“I am sorry for your loss” –My problem with “I’m sorry for your loss.” aside from it being clichéd, is it smacks of “sucks to be you!” Use simple “I’m sorry” or “Please accept my condolences” instead. It’s not like the bereaved need to be reminded why you’re sorry. I can’t imagine a grieving widow opening a note the day after her husband’s funeral and thinking “Oh wow, I guess Cousin Alfred really IS sorry for that time he set that pair of attack swans on me at Aunt Winnie’s rose tea.”
“Passed” Trains pass: people die. Unless the deceased bought it while playing bridge and you can’t resist the pun. See also: “Was Lost”
“Let me know if you need anything.” Good intention, but completely useless. Of course they won’t let you know if they need anything. Instead make a very specific invitation no closer than three weeks away. “I’m going to the exhibit at the wildflower center next month and I’d love your company if you’re up to it.” Don’t expect a response, but do call a week or so before the event and extend the invitation again.
“Heaven has another angel” “Holding you up to the light” or anything you’d hear in a country song. Don’t. Just don’t.
“It’s a blessing” I understand if someone has had a long suffering illness it’s tempting, but don’t. If the bereaved do consider it a blessing, they don’t need to be reminded. If they don’t, you’ve REALLY stuck your foot in it.
Here are two examples of condolence letters: one for someone you knew, one for someone you didn’t. I find store-bought sympathy cards cheap and in poor taste. Use your personal stationery.
I’m so, so sorry to hear about Ernie, I cannot imagine how you must feel. You and Ernie had such a special relationship, and I loved the way two were always laughing together. I was just thinking about that time he thought your pigeons were looking sickly and gave them alka-seltzer. That was Ernie all over, always so caring, and of course the times we went out for brunch at Le Canard en Caoutchouc will remain some of my very happiest memories. I know you’re probably overwhelmed, so don’t worry about responding now, but there’s an exhibit on bottle caps through the ages at the Museum of Useless Ephemera next month and I’d love the company.
Know you’re in my thoughts and prayers and you –as always– have all my love.
With deepest sympathy,
I’m so, so sorry to hear about Ernie, I cannot imagine how you must feel. I never got the chance to know Ernie, but anyone you loved that well must have been a heck of a guy. I was just remembering the story you told me about that time he thought your pigeons were looking sickly and gave them alka-seltzer. Such a sweet story. I know you’re probably overwhelmed right now, so don’t worry about responding now, but there’s an exhibit on bottle caps through the ages at the Museum of Useless Ephemera next month and I’d love the company.
With deepest sympathy,