How to write a condolence note

1. Always write a condolence note.

You may not know what to say. No one does. You might say the same thing that everyone else says. That’s totally okay. What you says sounds stupid. That’s also okay. There is nothing you can say to help, really, but knowing that someone is thinking of his or her struggles will help the grieving person a tiny tiny bit. Trust me. My mother, who prided herself on being a rational woman ruled by logic and sense, kept track of who sent her cards when my father died. It made a difference to her. It made a difference to me.

2. Choose the right card for the person.

I always send pretty blank cards because I hate the sentiments expressed by sympathy cards. This is not true for everyone. But you can’t go wrong with a simple drawing or a simple statement. I received a pile of ridiculous sentimental cards when my mother died. They could have been sent on yesterday’s fish and chip newspapers. I was happy to receive every single one. It made a difference to me.

3. Say one thing of substance if possible.

If I knew the person who died, I’ll include something positive I remember about her. If I don’t, I’ll say something I mean, even if it is just “I’m thinking of you.” My friend J suggests including a story you remember the person telling you about the one who died.

4. It doesn’t have to be long.

Again, you’re honoring the fact that a person has died. You are acknowledging that the survivor has had her life possibly changed forever.

5. Mention God, heaven, or better places only when appropriate.

When in doubt, don’t.

6. Don’t promise anything that you can’t deliver.

Time may heal all wounds, but the recipient doesn’t need to be reminded that just as of now. Offer to ask with everyday tasks if appropriate. It is hard to eat, cook, wash the dishes, walk the dog, pick up your dry cleaning, plan a wedding, take your kid to the playground, get your car inspected when someone you love has died. Offer to talk only if you’re willing and able.

7. Just do it.

What am I missing?

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6 responses to “How to write a condolence note

  1. Thank you thank you for posting this, Indy. It’s like when people say, I’m not visiting ____ in the hospital because I hate hospitals. I always want to slap these people and scream, We ALL hate hospitals!! Now get your ass over there!!

    Same goes for sympathy cards, and attending wakes and funerals. It doesn’t matter what you say, it matters that you are present. I kept every personal note and card after my mother died, and I still remember the people who showed up so clearly, it’s like they’re still here.

    Which means I remember, just as clearly, the ones who did not.

  2. Perfect. Love it- so true. I think one thing to add is that saying “call me if you need anything” might not be the best approach. I was told once to say “I’m going to call you in a few weeks and take you out for lunch” (or come over and help with laundry or cook dinner or whatever). Write that instead and follow through with that and DO IT. Grieving people don’t usually ask for help, even when they need it. But when it comes to their front door they can’t refuse…

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