When someone close to us experiences a loss, we want to do anything we can to help them. Usually, one of the first things we do when reaching out is to send a sympathy message or card. Writing a heartfelt sympathy card can seem very difficult at first, as you may worry that you’ll say the wrong thing, but if you keep your words from the heart, you really can do no wrong.
With today’s high-tech advancements, it may seem appropriate to send an email, as it seems that letter writing is on the outs, however, when it comes to writing condolence cards, there’s nothing like a handwritten note. When composing a condolence card, whether it be including our own memory, a personal message or offering support, finding the right words can be a daunting task. Husband and wife authors Leonard M. Zunin and Hilary Stanton Zunin, using extensive research, workshops and professional experience, crafted a book, The Art of Condolence: What to Say, What to do at a Time of Loss. Within this book, they laid out seven key components of a condolence letter that should help you to organize your thoughts as you begin writing. The letters and cards don’t necessarily need to include all seven components, nor do they need to be in this order, but it’s a good way to start outlining what you’d like to say. The seven components are as follows:
Acknowledge the loss and the name of the deceased. In case you didn’t hear of the loss from the person you are writing to, address how you came to know of their passing, as well as expressing your sorrow in learning the news. Example: “I was heartbroken to learn of your Aunt Linda’s passing when I spoke with Andy last night.”
Express your sympathy. This is the part of the letter or card to sincerely express your sorrow. In letting the bereaved know of your anguish, you show that you care and also that you share in some of their sorrowful feelings. Example: “Words are not enough to convey how sorry I am for your loss. My family and I are thinking of you at this difficult time.”
Note special qualities of the deceased. If you knew the deceased personally, this is the point to talk about unique characteristics that made them special. If you did not know the deceased, you can mention some qualities you had heard about. Example: “Your sister Mary had one of the kindest hearts of anyone I had ever known, she had a warm spirit and always had a smile on her face.”
Include one or more of your special memories. If possible, relay a special anecdote (or two!) that you have of the deceased that emphasized the special qualities they possessed. It can be a specific memory or a general memory you have. If you didn’t know them personally, it’s ok to skip this component. Example: “I have such fond memories of meeting your grandmother for brunch on Sundays, she always was always making us laugh, and she really lit up the room. She loved sharing stories about how proud she is of you.”
Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths or special qualities. When someone experiences a loss, it can be difficult to can be earth-shattering, even to the strongest individual. Being reminded of their personal strengths, especially ones that can help them get through this difficult time, can be helpful and appreciated. Example: “I have seen Henry’s best qualities in you, and I know you go out of your way to help others, and also finding strength within yourself and your family.
Offer help, but make sure it is a specific offer. Many, but not all, condolence letters and cards offer support and some sort of help. If you truly wish to, offer to help the bereaved, but if you choose not to, you can still compose a beautiful letter. When offering help, be sure to make a specific offer; if you write, “let me know if there’s anything you need,” it puts the burden on them to get in touch with you. Example: “I know next week will be very difficult and busy for you. We can drive Owen and Sophia to and from school each day. I also know my kids would love to have a playdate, so we’d love to have the kids over one day next week.”
Close with a thoughtful word or phrase. The closing of a condolence card can be important. Let your parting words truly be a reflection of your feelings. Instead of just saying “Sincerely” or “Love”, try to use something that imparts more meaningful feelings, such as “May peace and comfort be with you at this difficult time,” or “We all offer our sincere condolences to you and your family in this time of healing.”
Remember, as you are writing your letter or card that these are just examples, you don’t have to go by them, but it may help guide your thoughts, you can use some, or all of these components, but the most important thing is to write from your heart.