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Five Great Finishing School Lessons: Pt 4, Condolence Letters | Manolo for the Big Girl

Five Great Finishing School Lessons: Pt 4, Condolence Letters

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.

Dear Bert,

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,

Plummy

OR

Dear Bert,

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,

Plumcake


17 Responses to “Five Great Finishing School Lessons: Pt 4, Condolence Letters”

  1. The gold digger April 23, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    “Let me know if you need anything.”

    Excellent! Another thing, in addition to a specific invitation, is to show up with food. And then leave, unless the bereaved person wants to talk. Or show up and cut the grass. Do something that makes that person’s life easier.

    I always thought the food thing was such a cliche and so silly, but when my dad was dying, my aunts and uncles and cousins took turns bringing us food at the hospice where we were staying with my dad. It was so thoughtful and so useful. We couldn’t think about anything else but how awful the situation was and certainly were in no condition to plan and cook meals.

  2. JenniferP April 23, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Lovely as usual!

    People get overwhelmed by death. They don’t know what to say. You don’t know what to say. Everyone in the USA (or at least my chilly Yankee corner of it) pretends it doesn’t exist until it’s happening or has happened, and then we’re like “Oh crap, pull out Emily Post so no one knows we were raised by wolves!” So it’s great to have a script.

  3. The gold digger April 23, 2010 at 2:54 pm #

    PS Although I am already in the habit of writing thank-you and condolence notes, I am going to bookmark your samples because they are so good.

  4. Twistie April 23, 2010 at 3:13 pm #

    When my mother died, we were overwhelmed with cards and condolence letters. While we appreciated the thought behind each one, there were obviously individual cards and letters that touched us more deeply than others. One, written by a long-time friend of my mother’s was five pages long. It was filled to the brim with wonderful stories about Mom culled from more than twenty years of friendship. As we read it, we all laughed and cried in turn. I will never forget that wonderful letter or the gracious lady who wrote it.

    The best thing about it? There was not one euphemism in the entire thing. That was something I felt Mom would have appreciated, too. She was never one for beating around the bush. She called ’em like she saw ’em.

  5. dcsurfergirl April 23, 2010 at 4:48 pm #

    I think there’s more lessons needed from finishing school. I would love to see more guidelines on basic conversational etiquette (how to express verbal condolences, for example), picking appropriate clothes for certain occasions and the list could go on! It’s a thought…

  6. Valleiko April 23, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    I second was dcsurfergirl said, yes please. Particulary because I am guilty of most of the don’t that you mentioned.

  7. Mango April 23, 2010 at 9:47 pm #

    One note on bringing food (and this applies to sick people and new parents too): Figure out how many immediate family members there are, multiply it by two, and that’s the appropriate number of servings to bring. NO MORE! Earlier this year, my mother had surgery and several friends kindly brought us entire casseroles, pans of cake (no complaining there), briskets, etc. My mother was in no position to eat, and otherwise it was just my father and I. We ate casserole and brisket until it came out of our nostrils and we loathed it. So bring food, but try not to overwhelm people in leftovers. They’ve suffered enough already.

  8. Debs April 24, 2010 at 12:28 am #

    Then there’s courtesy without warmth. Such letters may be appropriate, but one doesn’t actuallly WANT to see the gift giver/bereaved in person. I have certainly written letters where I wanted to offer a visit. And those where I wanted to be correct, but did not wish to see my mother-in-law (oops?). Can’t these things be amended to avoid the invite?

  9. Plumcake April 24, 2010 at 4:02 am #

    Debs, not in good taste, no. Someone else’s grief is not about what you (or I) want. If they’re not fond of you, they won’t take you up on it.

  10. BSAG April 24, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    I’m presuming there are situations where an invitation wouldn’t be appropriate – for instance if you live far away and it’s unlikely you’ll have any occasion to see the bereaved in person. Or if you knew the deceased and are writing to their relative who’s never met you.

    Is there some equivalent line to use instead of an invitation in these cases?

  11. Peaches April 24, 2010 at 9:39 am #

    Thank you. This is very helpful and I agree that more lessons would be a kick to read as well as helpful.

  12. gemdiva April 24, 2010 at 2:23 pm #

    Plummy, this post is so on the money. I have unfortunately had to pen a number of condolence notes lately and, though I have been sorely tempted to “make do” with a card, I have resisted. The death of a loved one is a huge event in someone’s life and deserves more than just a Hallmark sentiment, no matter how well intended. AND whatever you do, NEVER EVER send a sympathy email and let it go at that. A work colleague sent me an email on my mother’s passing telling me how sorry he was (one sentence). That was in 1999 and I have just recently begun to forgive him. Sometimes the wrong kind of condolences are worse than none at all. IMHO

  13. larkspur April 24, 2010 at 5:44 pm #

    These are the hardest notes for me. As everyone has pointed out – what do you say? My husband just sits down and writes it immediately and it always comes out looking sincere.

    I know the way people die should not affect the note, but the one note I never wrote (and I still cringe when I remember that I didn’t) was to an old family friend of my parents, who I knew really well when I was growing up, whose son (a few years younger than me) committed suicide. I was just never, ever able to write that one, even though I knew he needed it more than just about anyone.

  14. Nariya April 25, 2010 at 12:31 pm #

    Thank you for the very helpful guide!

    On the other side of things (and perhaps this is just an application of your “accept a compliment” post), I feel like it’s also a good personal practice to overlook other people’s social missteps. I feel like taking the time to get angry at a person because of their improperly written sympathy note while I was busy grieving would be the least of my worries, not to mention a useless drain of emotion.

    Of course, this doesn’t mean writing a cold sympathy note is OK. It’s just that most sympathy notes are never meant to be cold, but they do tend to be awkward. I guess what I’m saying is that while everyone should be able to show good support and love in sad times, everyone should also be able to accept whatever support is given, however small, with good grace.

  15. Janey April 26, 2010 at 12:18 am #

    Wait, so does that mean Bert’s single? Give him my number! Tell him I love pigeons and linoleum!

  16. raincoaster April 29, 2010 at 5:03 am #

    I didn’t even know Ernie was sick!

  17. Ama May 6, 2010 at 10:10 am #

    I actually didn’t mind “I’m sorry for your loss.” At the time it felt quite apt.

    The rest feels very true to me though. I wish no one had sent a card. I’d have preferred offers to keep me company, you’re absolutely right about the specific time offers though, making it some potential whenever never works.