You don’t need to be an award-winning writer to create an appropriate sympathy card or condolence note. It’s not hard to add a few short sentences to personalize a store-bought sympathy card to help lift the spirits of mourners.
Make it easy on yourself by using the ‘Five Ws’ press to guide your way: Who, What, When, Where and Why (I rearranged slightly). Younger generations, who are more comfortable with texting than actual writing, can especially benefit from these tips.
what or what: Describe your reaction when you heard the news of the death. “I was shocked/sad/surprised to hear that…” If you don’t know the deceased, but you know the comforter, you can write, “My thoughts are with you after I heard…” Don’t be afraid to use the “D” – dead, dying, or death.
Who is the: Identify the person who died by name or by relationship, such as “your father,” “grandmother,” or “your husband/wife.” And don’t be afraid to use that person’s name in further communications with mourners going forward. They may long to hear that person’s name spoken.
when: Write a card as soon as you learn of death. If it’s been more than a week since the person passed away, you might say, “I just heard the news today, or I’ll be in touch soon.” Supportive sympathy notes can also help in the months after death. If a condolence note is sent to mark the anniversary of a death or other notable event, “it’s hard to believe it’s been (a year/current time frame) since his death.”
where: A sentence or two about the impact of the deceased on your world. This influence can be related to work, the cause the person supports, or family ties, as a long-time friend or neighbor. If you don’t know the deceased, focus your comments on the mourners and their role in your life. Sample “where” sentences could say things like:
- (Name) was a legend in action. His fondness for a certain red stapler continues.
- I met (name) through our support of the local BioPark Association. Specifically, we were both parents at the Capybara Zoo.
- Having lived next door to (name) for 20 years, I couldn’t have asked for a better neighbor.
Why: What made the person who died so special? Why do you send a condolence note to the recipient? You might consider using sentences like:
- We loved (name) and will miss him very much.
- I have always liked (him/her) (positive personality trait, such as sense of humor, generosity and knowledge).
- (Name) was a good person and I am so glad I had the opportunity to get to know (he/she).
- In honor of (name), we have made a contribution to (organization).
- I appreciate your friendship and wanted to let you know that I am thinking of you during this difficult time.
It is also appropriate to draw up a line to support the deceased:
- Please let me know if you need a shoulder to cry on or an ear to listen.
- I’ll be in touch in another week or so to see how you’re doing.
- May I take you to lunch next week?
It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a condolence note on a sympathy card, on fancy stationery, or on simple notebook paper. Taking the time to write, the address of the envelope, and the mail says a lot. It may seem old school, but it’s those personal touches that say you really care.
If you’re feeling eloquent, long typewritten stories about the deceased and the family can become a cherished keepsake. Tales of family relationships, mythical events, and ancestral histories can help everyone feel more connected and supported.
And yes, you can send an email, but remember that the family routine has broken and they may not be online for a while to see and respond to your note. If you want to send a message through social media, unless mourners post a public announcement for all to see, use the private messaging functions.
You can apply these guidelines to empathic phone calls, too. The key is to connect with fellow human beings who are hurting and let them know your concern and care. One day, your caring gestures will be reciprocated.
Jill Rubin, Certified Secondary Specialist and The Doyenne of Death®, is a leading educator in the field of death education. She uses humor, funny movie clips, and out-of-the-box activities to teach end-of-life pre-planning. She curated the award-winning Before I Die New Mexico festival, and was honored by Albuquerque Business First with the 2019 Influential Woman Award. She is also the author of three books on end-of-life issues and a certified funeral celebrant. Her website is www.AGoodGoodbye.com.
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