When someone is grieving, the sympathy note is as important as the gift that accompanies it. Writing a sympathy note is not easy. Especially words that acknowledge a loss. We want to say something meaningful and comforting. Signing a name to the card isn’t enough.
Expressing condolence is not easy, even for those of us who write for a living. How to find the words without sounding clichéd or cloying? Here are a few suggestions.
How to Write a Sympathy Note
Share a Story
Share a story, a memory that defines who the person was. This needn’t be long or involved. For example, my father was respected in our town, seen as a natural teacher and a go-to guy. When he died, one neighbor wrote how my dad had taught him how to ride a bike when he was a little boy. Another wrote how my dad got him the job at a country club. Both of these were things about my dad that I had never known.
My mother was lively and warm, popular with my friends. In condolence, one friend told me how she used to love coming to my house after school because “your mother always made me feel that I was just the one she wanted to see.”
An Affirmation Even for Loss
Along with expressing your sympathy, offer a positive expression that is both personal and encouraging. You can acknowledge that the person you’re writing to was a good daughter, a loyal wife. You can express admiration for her strength during a difficult time. Recently, I wrote to a business colleague whose wife passed away after spending the last year in a nursing home. He felt guilty about this placement. But he also visited her very frequently – even when she no longer knew him. I wrote my condolences, adding a short note, saying how lucky his wife was to have had a devoted and attentive husband.
In General, Be Specific
It’s well-meaning to offer help. But often we do this in the most generic way. We say, “If you ever need anything . . .” and leave it at that.
Yes, those who are going through a difficult time need something. Along with a thoughtful gift might come a thoughtful promise. A meeting soon for lunch? An offer to share in the care-giving for someone who needs a break. Assertive nurturing, we could call this. Find your own right words to show you care.