Message from the heart: writing a sympathy card
Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616)
When someone you know loses a loved one, the simple, thoughtful gesture of writing a sympathy card or condolence letter can bring an untold measure of comfort to the bereaved. In the quest to find the perfect words of condolence for a sympathy message, however, many people become overwhelmed and may avoid writing altogether.
If this should happen to you, begin by accepting the fact that no matter how carefully you choose your words, your condolences will not make everything better – nothing can do that. But a thoughtful, sincere sympathy message, written from the heart, can be a soothing balm, allowing the bereaved to feel your love and support and know that she is not alone in her sorrow.
If There's Anything I Can Do... our guide shows you exactly how to help a bereaved friend or relative without getting in the way
If you are helping a friend or relative cope with grief, you might also be interested in one of our books. When someone you love goes through the pain of bereavement, you feel distraught and completely unable to help. You can't take away the grief, but there are many things you can do to make everyday life more bearable for them. This book is full of little ways - as well as big ways - you can help someone you care about cope with grief and bereavement that little bit better.
Find out more: If There's Anything I Can Do
When is the best time to send a sympathy card?
The best time to send a sympathy card is as soon as you learn of the death. Expressing your condolences will be easier and more natural when you spontaneously share your feelings. You may choose to send your sympathy message in the form of a store-bought sympathy card, a condolence letter handwritten on personal stationery, or one of our sympathy ecards, but whichever method you choose, be sure to include a personal message.
Avoid platitudes and judgmental statements
As you write, avoid the use of platitudes – they're seldom helpful, and they may cause even more pain to the bereaved, who is raw with emotion. Presumptive statements that may be perceived as judgmental, like "it's for the best" or "it was God's will," or any form of "you should" or "you will," no matter how well intended, may provoke anger or resentment.
Make sure your sympathy message is genuine and sincere
Also, resist the temptation to say "I know how you feel." Even if you've shared a similar experience – such as the sudden and tragic death of a loved one in an accident, for example – it's important to remember that everyone grieves differently.
The only feelings you can be sure of are your own. A sympathy message that states something like, "I was shocked and deeply saddened to learn of Jim's untimely death" is more sincere, and your willingness to share your own feelings will help the bereaved to cope with hers.
Why not include a treasured memory?
If you personally knew the deceased, consider writing about a treasured memory to let your grieving friend know how his loved one touched your life. Name the qualities you will always remember when you think of the deceased, such as a sparkling wit, unwavering courage, or profound kindness. Above all, be genuine. If you didn't know the deceased well, focus on your bereaved friend, and let him know that you are there for him.
Keep your sympathy message simple
It's a good idea to keep your sympathy message simple. Offer to help if you can, but be specific. An invitation to "Call me if you need anything" is likely to be ignored. "I'd be glad to baby sit or run errands to give you a break. I'll call next week to see how I can help," on the other hand, is far more useful – and your friend is more likely to accept your offer of assistance.
The act of writing a sympathy card or letter of condolence builds a bridge of communication, opening the door for your friend to share her grief. When she's ready, it may be easier for her to speak to you about her sorrow because you generously shared the gift of yourself in your sympathy message.
Why not send one of our free sympathy ecards?
Further sources of information
You may find our other articles in the Grief Library section helpful too.
Visit our Amazon store to find books to help you through bereavement.