How to Write a Condolence Letter or Sympathy Note

7 Steps to Help You Find the Right Words of Sympathy

Man writing condolence letter
Writing a sympathy note or condolence letter can prove challenging, but it's worth the effort.

A condolence letter or note expressing your sympathy can provide a great source of comfort to someone grieving the loss of a loved one by letting that person know he or she is in your thoughts. This article offers seven steps to help you write a condolence letter or note and find the right words to express your sympathy to someone mourning a death.

Why Write a Condolence Letter or Note?

Finding the right words to express your condolences to someone grieving a death can feel like a challenging task.

While it might seem easier to just pick up a mass-produced sympathy card from your local card shop or drugstore, offering your personal, heartfelt words of condolence provides a more effective tribute to the deceased and conveys that he or she -- and the person mourning -- are important to you.

The effect on the survivor and the fact that you took the time to handwrite a condolence letter or note will offer greater comfort than any generic sentiment you might find on a greeting card. In addition, writing a personal condolence letter allows you to share a special memory you might have involving the deceased, or offer to talk or help the recipient in the weeks and months ahead.

Guidelines for Writing a Condolence Letter or Note

First of all, you should write and send/deliver your sympathy letter or note promptly -- generally within the first two weeks following the loss. Funeral or burial services typically occur within this timeframe so, if you will be attending, it's perfectly acceptable to place your condolence letter in the basket or collection box for sympathy cards usually provided at these services, if you don't wish to mail it.

(In fact, because there are many tasks involved immediately after a death, the recipient might not open his or her mail promptly anyway.)

Next, if possible, you should handwrite your condolence letter or note on stationery or nice paper rather than type/print it from a computer. If you "think better" at your computer when writing, which many people do these days, then go ahead and compose your letter or note there first and then handwrite the final version on paper.

Because personally written letters and notes are increasingly rare in today's email/texting age, a handwritten letter or note will carry greater meaning at this difficult time. And if you want to use a store-bought card, then tuck your handwritten letter or note inside the card, or handwrite it on the card itself if space allows.

Finally, you should write your sympathy letter or note in your own voice, just as you would normally speak to the person. Don't feel you need to get too fancy or try to come up with a poem or verse on your own; just think of the one thing you'd like to say most to the recipient that expresses how you feel, either about the loss or how much you care about the surviving person. (If you're having difficulty, reading a few quotations about grief, loss or mourning might inspire you and help you find your own words.)

The 7 Components of a Condolence Letter or Note

The difference between a condolence letter and a sympathy note is purely the length of each, i.e., a note might be a few sentences while letters are longer.

It's entirely your choice which you choose to write and depends on upon how much you wish to express. It's common to start writing a note and soon find you've written several paragraphs!

Regardless of your choice, condolence letters or notes generally use some or all of the following seven components. (See below for a sample/template condolence note.)

1. Acknowledge the loss and refer to the deceased by name.
Don't try to dance around or avoid the fact that somebody has died -- the recipient knows. Moreover, there are many reasons why you should use the name of the deceased that will help the bereaved during this difficult time. And try not to use a euphemism for death because, again, you won't fool anyone.

2. Express your sympathy.

3. Note one or more of the deceased's special qualities that come to mind.

4. Include your favorite memory of the deceased.

5. Remind the bereaved of his or her personal strengths and/or special qualities.

6. Offer to help the survivor in a specific way.
"Let me know if I can help" is one of the several things people should never say at a funeral, but it's often heard anyway. Unfortunately, this merely helps you feel better but places a burden on the mourner to think of something particular and then contact you. Instead, unless you already have something specific in mind, consider offering one of these 60+ practical ways to help a grieving person.

7. End with a thoughtful hope, wish or sympathy expression.
Examples include "You are in my thoughts" or "I will always be here to support you." Avoid using the usual one-word endings, such as "Sincerely," "Love," or "Fondly," which aren't quite as personal.

Sample Condolence Letter

Here is an outline/template of a condolence letter that uses the seven components shown above. You do not need to follow this template exactly -- it's merely here to help you organize your thoughts -- so feel free to reorganize, add or delete these steps as you write your letter. And, obviously, the specific text below merely offers an example.

Dear _____________,

1. Acknowledge the loss and refer to the deceased by name.
I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of _____________.

2. Express your sympathy.
I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for you now, but please trust that I care about you.

3. Note one or more of the deceased's special qualities.
____________ was such a kind, gentle soul. He/She would do anything to help improve the life of a child.

4. Include your favorite memory.
I remember the time that _________________.

5. Remind the bereaved of his or her personal strengths and/or special qualities.
I cannot imagine how much you will miss _______________ but you've always seen the best in everyone you know because of your generous heart.

6. Offer to help the survivor in a specific way.
Perhaps you could use your scrapbooking talent to make a lasting memory book of _________________? If you would like, I can come over on Tuesday evening to help you make your scrapbook. I have some wonderful pictures of _______________ that I'd love to share with you, as well as several personal memories of how he helped children.

7. End with a thoughtful hope, wish or sympathy expression.
I will always be here to support you,

[Sign your name] _____________________

As noted above, please keep in mind that this template is only an example. You should write from your heart and trust that whatever components you include in your condolence letter will be the right ones and that your time and effort will help the bereaved.

The Components of a Condolence Note

As noted above, a handwritten condolence or sympathy note is merely a shorter form of a condolence letter but can prove just as meaningful to the bereaved versus a generic sympathy card. If you want to use a store-bought card and space allows, then feel free to handwrite your note on the card itself; otherwise, tuck your note inside of the greeting card.

When writing a condolence note, you should just pick a few elements from the seven steps above. For example, you might use components 1, 2, 3 and 7:

1. Acknowledge the loss and refer to the deceased by name.

2. Express your sympathy.

3. Note one or more of the deceased's special qualities that come to mind.

7. End with a thoughtful hope, wish or sympathy expression.

Please remember that this article merely provides a guide to how to write a condolence letter or note. Ultimately, the unique nature of who you are, and your relationship with the deceased and/or the surviving loved one, will determine what you write. Thus, you can use all of the components shown above in your sympathy letter or note, a few or none at all. The most important thing is that you should write from your heart!

Edited and updated by Chris Raymond, April 2, 2016.

Related Articles You Might Find Helpful:
What to Say to a Grieving Parent
7 Insensitive Comments to Avoid Using
How to Write/Deliver a Successful Eulogy

Sources:

"How to Write a Condolence Letter 2005." End of Life Care Curriculum. Virginia Commonwealth Universities School of Medicine. http://www.curriculum.som.vcu.edu/m3/endoflife/Condolence_letter.html

Zunin L.M., Zunin H.S., 1992. The Art of Condolence: What to Write, What to Say, What to Do at a Time of Loss

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