How to Write the Perfect Sympathy Letter

Larry Barkdull
Award-Winning, Nationally Recognized Writer

Do you know a friend or relative who has experienced a death, personal loss, or other misfortune? Perhaps this person was recently divorced or has been injured in an accident. Maybe you know an expectant mother who has recently suffered a miscarriage. These are times when you need just the right words to say just the right thing. A store-bought sympathy card is not as personal as a hand-written letter, but you may buy a card and put your letter inside it. Here are some tips to help you write a tactful Sympathy Letter that will be much appreciated:

  • Try to be empathetic. Imagine yourself in the other person's place. What would you like to hear? What would make you feel better?
  • Be brief. Much is communicated with "I'm so sorry. Please know you're in my thoughts." In times of loss, no one wants to read a lengthy letter (it's hard to read when you're crying). Communicating that you care is enough.
  • Don't be dramatic. A Sympathy Letter needs to be written with beautiful prose, but dramatic language may seem insincere. Tell how you learned about the news in simple terms. It is perfectly acceptable to relate your deep shock at hearing about the death or loss. Avoid using graphic terms to refer to a death that was tragic or gruesome.
  • Be personal. If your Sympathy Letter concerns a death, be sure to mention the deceased's name and the circumstances that caused the loss of life. Be honest; don't hesitate to use the word "death" or note the actual cause of death. Share your personal sadness. Remind the bereaved you support them at this difficult time and they are not completely alone in their suffering.

    Example:

    • Bill made me feel at home when I first moved here. I am so sorry that cancer took him at such an early age. I will miss him.
  • Mention positive memories. If your Sympathy Letter concerns a death, and if you knew the deceased, pay tribute to the person's life by mentioning something positive: a happy memory from your experiences together, a notable achievement, etc. You can even relate a story about how the deceased touched your life. Be sensitive, but it is not necessary to avoid humorous incidents that could help lighten the moment and would be gratefully received. Laughter is a great healer. You could also mention a special characteristic of the deceased-something you will always cherish.

    Examples:

    • a contagious sense of humor, a generous nature, love of the arts, courage, leadership, decisiveness.
  • Offer encouragement to the bereaved. Assume that the survivor feels overwhelmed by the loss and doesn't know whether or not they have the strength to get through it. State your confidence that they will get through it. Time is also a great healer. A comforting tactic that can have a powerful effect on the survivor is to quote a loving remark that was once made by the deceased about him or her. Remind the person in mourning of their own personal strengths in descriptive terms.

    Examples:

    • resilience, patience, competence, religious devotion, faith, optimism, a trusting nature.
  • Offer your condolences. How you will craft a condolence statement will depend on your personal relationship with the person to whom you are writing. For example, you may want to avoid being too religious if the person is only an acquaintance or if you do not know if they even have a religious affiliation. Most people would, however, appreciate being told that they are in your prayers and thoughts. You probably know what will bring them comfort. Write something that is congruent with your relationship.
  • Offer practical help to the grieving person. Specific offers are better than, "Let me know if there is anything I can do." Then take the initiative-if you don't get immediate acceptance of an offer, then call back and repeat it. Many people will think your first offer was just to be polite; repeated offers demonstrate your sincerity.

    Examples:

    • "Can I help you with the grocery shopping?"
    • "Can I run any errands for you?"
    • "Can I help with the children?"
    • "Can I write any letters for you?"
  • Show sensitivity. Allow people to grieve in their own way and for as long as is needed. There is a time to mourn! Be careful not to offer advice when none is wanted or needed. Remember, at the moment the bereaved needs a loving friend, not a counselor.

    Examples (what not to say):

    • "You need to go on a long cruise."
    • "Look on the bright side."
    • "It's all for the best."
  • Close with an expression of comfort. End your Sympathy Letter with an expression of comfort, sympathy, or affection. Let your concluding words reflect the truth of your feelings. You may want to close your letter simply with one word such as "Love," or "Sincerely," or you may want to use a phrase or a complete sentence followed by your name.

    Examples:

    • "My love and concern are with you always,"
    • "You are continually in my thoughts and prayers,"
    • "My heart and my tears are with you,"
    • "I share in your grief and send my love,"

Final Note: Use descriptive words when you compose your Sympathy Letter.

Examples:

  • burden, caring, comfort, comforting, compassion, concerned, consolation, difficult, endure, endurance, grief, grieve, heal, healing, heartbreaking, heartfelt, help, hope, hurt, hurtful, loss, love, misfortune, mourn, mourning, overcome, pain, painful, regret, regrettable, sad, shocking, sorrow, sorry, struggle, struggling.

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