Give sorrow words.  The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.” – William Shakespeare

In times of sorrow

Of all the notes you will pen, one of sympathy is bound to be the most difficult.  You might even be tempted to let this one slide.  It’s important, however, that people know they are not alone in their grief.  So when someone you know experiences a loss,  pull out your best writing paper and pens and write a little something from the heart.    

What NOT to write

Before you begin to write your condolences, keep in mind the types of things to avoid.    

Don’t try to explain.  Saying goodbye to a loved one is difficult.  It doesn’t matter if she is “in a better place” – she’s gone.  Telling a loved one it was “God’s will” – or that God needed him more in heaven – will not make things better.  As a matter of fact, in times of grief, it may very well make things worse.  If you’re tempted – even if you think it will do good – just say no.   

Don’t make comparisons.  A sympathy note is all about the recipient and the deceased.  That said avoid comparing your grief to theirs.  If you both lost your pet fish, on the fifteenth of November, at 8:02 in the morning, it’s acceptable to mention your understanding, but don’t dwell on how hard it was for you.  Furthermore, never, ever – in a million years – compare the death of your fish to the death of, say, a father.  Yes, our pets are like family … but a sympathy letter is not the time, nor the place, to bring this up.       

Don’t diminish grief.  People need to grieve.  And everyone does so in their own way and time.  It’s not your place to comment on their manner of mourning or offer suggestions.  Don’t tell them what they should or shouldn’t do – how they should or shouldn’t act.  Likewise, avoid words or phrases that seem to belittle grief – for instance, “It was meant to be,” “they lived a long life,” “it’s for the best.”     

What to write

Now that you know what not to write, a bit on what you should write.  A sympathy note is a way to offer solidarity with a person who has lost a loved one.  In other words, it’s written simply to let her know she’s not alone in her time of sorrow.   Keep it brief and keep it heartfelt.  And here’s how you go about it …  

Greet: Just like any correspondence, you should begin by addressing the recipient.  You have the option to simply write out the name, but I recommend adding the traditional “dear.”  

Express your sympathy:  Next, specifically address the loss and express your sympathy.  For example, “I was saddened to hear of your father’s death.  I am so sorry for your loss.” 

Remember the deceased:  If at all possible, write a little something to show you understand the deceased will be missed.  It may be secondhand knowledge – “I know you will miss your weekly outings,” for instance.  If you knew the deceased, however, make a personal note.  You might mention favorite qualities, lessons learned, or a favorite memory.  It can be serious or humorous as long as it comes from a heart of love.    

And don’t shy from this where a baby is concerned.  It’s all too easy to ignore things that are difficult; yet it’s important to let parents know their child had meaning.  Though they may not have had the opportunity to make memories, they still had hopes and dreams for their child. 

Reaffirm your concern:  End the note by reaffirming your concern.  For example, “Our thoughts and prayers are with you” or “Johnny will be greatly missed.”  If you are close to the recipient, remind him/her that you are only a phone call away, or otherwise offer your assistance.     

Close:  Finally, choose a close that indicates your sincerity:  “With love and sympathy,” “Very sincerely,” “Love,” “Your friend,” “With heartfelt sympathy,” “With love, tears, and prayers.”   

How to follow up

One of the most difficult things about sorrow is the expectation that things should resume as normal.  Life goes on.  Yet for those left behind, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays - that empty chair at the table - can renew grief.  You can mention that the recipient will remain in your thoughts, but sending another note at one of these times proves it's true.  As you write your initial note of sympathy, consider when you might send another.  Then mark the date on your calendar to follow through.