When Words Matter: Tips On Writing A Condolence Letter

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We're all so busy these days . . . There is no time to reflect, refuel, and find what is deep within us and makes us human. That is what writing does and why it feels so good. When you put a pen to paper, words spill out. Words from inside you that you didn't even know were there. Wonderful words, with meaning.  ~Florence Isaacs

A reader writes: Hello, I would like to know if you could assist me in writing a letter of condolence.

My response: I think this is a very important question, and I commend you for asking it. With our busy lifestyles nowadays, electronic communication alternatives such as social media, smart phones, texting and email have made letter-writing seem like such a daunting task for so many of us, if not a forgotten art altogether. Yet in times of sorrow, few things are more appreciated than a handwritten note, which can be held and saved by the recipient, and read over and over again.
I know that many years ago, when my own infant son died shortly after he was born, along with his birth and death certificates, the note cards and letters I received from family and friends were the only physical evidence I had that my baby had lived at all. In those days, mothers weren't permitted to see their babies who died, so I never got to see and hold my precious little son. Those written words of caring, comfort and compassion meant the world to me ~ and now, nearly fifty years later, I still have those treasured cards and letters, kept safe in a special keepsake / memory box.

Here are my suggestions for writing your own letter of condolence:

Write your letter in longhand if you can, and send it by regular mail rather than by email. If writing is difficult or painful for you and you must type your letter, make sure that you sign it in longhand.

If you find a store-bought greeting card and you think the wording is perfect, be sure to personalize it with a few hand-written lines of your own.

If it suits the person in mourning and reflects your thoughts as well, by all means include a meaningful quotation, such as one of those you'll find on my Grief Healing Web site's Comfort for Grieving Hearts page.

Keep it brief. What you write needn't run to several pages; often just a few personal lines will do. A bereaved person has difficulty concentrating anyway, so a shorter letter will be easier to digest than a longer one. Remember that your goal is not to change what has happened or to erase the grief of the bereaved. Rather, your purpose is to acknowledge the person's loss, express your sympathy and offer some measure of comfort.

Avoid euphemisms such as "passed away" or "gone on." Use the word "died."

Mention the person who died by name.

If you knew the loved one who died, share a happy memory. A mourner's greatest fear is that the one who died will be forgotten. Even if you didn't know the person well, you can still express sincere sympathy and support to the one who is bereaved.

Enclose a picture or keepsake if you have one.

Respect the uniqueness of this loss. All mourners believe that their loss is the worst that could happen to anyone and that no one else can know their particular pain ~ and they are right. We cannot possibly know how they feel or measure just how much they have lost, so it's important to avoid such statements as, "I know how you feel," even if you've experienced a similar loss. Better to say, "I cannot imagine what this is like for you."

Avoid sharing accounts of your own losses, which shifts the focus away from the mourner, who right now deserves your total empathy and attention.

Resist the temptation to offer advice, and don't tell people how they should or shouldn't feel. There is no right or wrong way to mourn, and everyone's grief journey is unique.

Don't preach or offer spiritual advice. When a loved one dies, it is normal to question everything we thought we believed in, including God. Those in mourning need time to question and sort out their own personal and spiritual beliefs.

Don't try to turn the death into something positive with statements such as, "At least she had a good long life," or "At least he didn't suffer." Nothing you can say will make this death more acceptable to the bereaved.

Be specific if you wish to offer help, and mention a task that you are willing to do and when you are free to do it, e.g., "I have two free hours next weekend, and I'd like to come over and mow your lawn or take your kids to a movie." It's unlikely that a bereaved person will know what he or she wants or needs from you.

Know that it's better to be late in writing a condolence letter than never to send one at all. A note that comes later, when everyone else has returned to their own lives, may be even more welcome and appreciated by the one who is bereaved. 

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