"Your card, note, letter can be a part of the healing process. The most important thing to a person who has lost a loved one, is to know that they are loved and cared for."
Writing Condolence Notes
If you have ever written a condolence or sympathy note to someone whose loved one has died, you know how difficult it can be. In this day of emails and texts, it is even harder to sit down and put pen to paper.
Remember that a physical card, note, or letter is deeply meaningful to those receiving it. A condolence note is tangible; it can be set aside if the time is not right, and a person can reread it after the initial time of loss. A note can be read in private – as these notes of love and care often bring tears – or it may be shared with others. Below are some reasons for writing and a few thoughts on what you might write.
1. Be prepared
The hardest part, of course, is actually writing the note. Knowing that you have the tools will make writing easier. Begin to collect the items you will need: simple note cards, stamps, a pen, and several store bought sympathy cards. Keep these in a box for when you need them. When someone you know experiences the loss of a loved one, retrieve your box.
2. Consider the recipient
How well do you know the person who died? If the person who died is a relative of a colleague or friend (and you did not know the deceased personally), a store bought card with a handwritten line is sufficient.
Another circumstance is when someone you know dies, and you want to write a note to that person's relative or close friend. In this case, a handwritten note is better than a card. See below for ideas of what to say.
The last category is a note or letter to someone close to you, where you were also close to the person who died. In this case, a heartfelt letter makes a world of difference. See below for ideas of what to say.
3. Write clearly and honestly
When adding a line to a store bought card, consider something simple such as: “I am praying for you and your family,” or “I am so sorry for your loss.” Such a line, along with your signature, is sufficient. Depending on your relationship with the recipient, you might add an extra note such as, “I will call to plan lunch with you after you get back."
When writing to a relative of someone who died, your note should acknowledge your relationship to the deceased. Include something positive and genuine that you remember about the person such as, “Your mother was so nice to me when I visited you last year,” or “Your husband had a wonderful sense of humor.” Add what else you can, and conclude with a note of prayer and thanksgiving for the person’s life.
For those closest situations which merit a heartfelt letter, you should offer your own genuine sorrow, remembering what the person who died has meant to you. Include any positive stories or facts that are significant. You might also include a favorite poem or prayer that provides support and hope.
4. Allow your own emotions to come through
Especially in those close situations, know that your own emotions are part of the process, and emotions can therefore be part of the note. For example, when my uncle died, I wrote to my aunt remembering a time that we all shared peach ice cream, my uncle’s favorite. As I was writing, my tears fell on the paper, and l left them there, so she knew I was crying with her.
5. What NOT to say
Here are some things you should NEVER say in a condolence note:
“It is God’s will.” ... “God must have needed him/her in heaven.” ... “You will feel better soon.” ... “You will get married again or have another child.” ... “Time will heal.” ... "Everything happens for a reason."
These comments are not only false – they hurt. When a loved one dies, the pain of loss may ease, but it does not go away. Much like an operation, the deep pain may go away, but the scar remains as an ever-present reminder of the loss.
Your Note Makes a Difference
Know that your condolence, card, note, or letter can be part of the healing process. The most important thing to a person who has lost a loved one is to know that they are loved and cared for. Your efforts in sending this message of love and care are worth it.
Amy Dyer, Ph.D is a Professor of Christian Education and Pastoral Theology at Virginia Theological Seminary. Throughout her career, she has been a public school teacher, Head Start trainer, Christian Education director, curriculum developer, Godly Play teacher, and more. Dr. Dyer’s interests include working with children, travel, and reading. During a recent sabbatical leave, she spent time in Ireland studying early Celtic Spirituality.