How to Write a Letter of Condolence

by | May 13, 2010 12:28 PM ET

Death is a difficult subject. For most of us, talking about death is, at the very least, uncomfortable. And for some, it is almost impossible. So when the loved one of a relative, friend or colleague dies, figuring out just the right way to recognize that person's passing can be extremely daunting. But it has to be done.

If you're wondering how I came upon this topic, I suppose it started to germinate on Mother's Day when I was thinking of a dear, motherly friend, one of my aunts-in-law. It will be the one-year anniversary of her passing at the end of next week. And then on Monday, I read a New York Times article about the entertainer Lena Horne, who passed away on Sunday. As I came to the part in the article where it says, "Ms. Horne is survived by her daughter ... six grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren," I thought of the many sympathy cards and letters that will be written to her family. In the last year, I've both received and sent condolences. I know how much my family and I appreciated the kind words of friends -- so much so, that I would never be able to go without sharing the same in return, no matter how difficult.

Although I work with words all day every day, I've certainly found myself verbally bereft when trying to compose a condolence letter or sign a sympathy card. Eventually, though, emotions take the lead and words follow. That's really the most important thing -- be compassionate and genuine. Sure, if you're able to quote an appropriate poem, lyric or religious verse, go ahead. But if you're not a wordsmith, just be heartfelt and honest. Sometimes the simplest statements can be the most comforting.

Before taking pen in hand, it's important to think about your intent. If the deceased was your friend, then your purpose will be twofold -- offering sympathy to the surviving family members and paying tribute to your departed friend. If the deceased was not someone you knew personally, but was the loved one of a friend or colleague, your primary goal is to provide comfort to your friend or colleague. The next thing to consider is whether you want to send a handwritten note or letter, or a pre-fashioned (store-bought) sympathy card. You can even make a special homemade card using a meaningful photograph or illustration. What you go with, ultimately, will depend on a few things: the person you're sending it to and how well you know him or her, and personal preference. And, in some circumstances, you might find yourself sending both.

Timing is key: Once you hear the news, you should try to send a sympathy card or condolence note within one week, two at the most. After that, you might want to follow up with a longer note or letter, depending on your relationship with the recipient. If you're sending a  sympathy card (whether store bought or homemade), either you can inscribe a brief message on the card or you can enclose a short handwritten note. In your inscription or note, be sure to mention the deceased person's name and share your sympathy for the surviving person's loss. For example, a note might read:

Dear, Ingrid.
I was sad to hear about your uncle Seth's passing. I know he was an incredibly supportive person in your life and that he was integral in your decision to study law. I am so very sorry for your loss.
Please know that my thoughts are with you and your family,

If you opt to send a letter, then you might make additional comments about the deceased, perhaps including a fond memory or two of him or her. And just before signing off, if you're able to provide assistance, make a specific offer to help -- be it to provide a meal, pick up out-of-town family or friends from the airport or hand out programs at the funeral. Just be sure that whatever help you offer, it's something you can definitely do.

That covers the basics of why, when and how - but what about the who? Obviously, relatives and close friends make the list. You should also include people you see frequently such as neighbors and coworkers. But the bottom line is, if you know someone who has suffered a loss and feel that you want to express your sympathy, do it. Perhaps you learn that the sibling of an old high-school friend with whom you haven't spoken in 10 years has died. If your instinct is to reach out to that person, follow that feeling.

For a more in-depth discussion of what to say and, perhaps more importantly, what not to say, check your local library for a book on letter writing that has a chapter on condolence cards. Or consider getting Abigail Van Buren's (a.k.a "Dear Abby") booklet on letter writing, which reportedly includes a section on condolences.

And one final comment -- don't forget to share your sympathy regarding the loss of a pet. Cards, notes or letters are appropriate at this time, too. For many of us, the dogs, cats and other animals we share our homes with are a part of our families and their passing is a considerable loss.

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