How to Write a Sympathy or Condolence Letter

 

Finding the right words to write a condolence letter or sympathy note may be challenging, yet the benefits can be immeasurable. A well-written, heart-felt condolence letter is a show of your support and sympathy for the person grieving the death of a loved one.

People have a better understanding the importance and the benefits of sending a sympathy letter when they been in the position of receiving condolence letters following the death of a loved one.

Let's take a look at how to write a condolence letter.

Dr. Gregory C. Kane from the Department of Medicine, Jefferson Medical College, Philadelphia, PA. notes:

    In this era of instant communication through text messaging, e-mail, instant messaging, and cellular phones, personal communications, particularly handwritten notes or personal letters, are becoming quite rare.
A condolence letter may be challenging to write, but sending a note of sympathy can be a great benefit and a source of comfort for the survivors. A proper letter of condolence can contribute to the healing of the bereaved family.

Source: Kane GC. A Dying Art? The Doctor's Letter of Condolence. Chest. 2007; 131:1245-1247.
Image Source: Writing a Letter. Modified Microsoft Image.

SENDING SYMPATHIES CAN BE HELPFUL...

The death of a loved one is a difficult time.

A well-written condolence letter or sympathy letter can help ease the sorrow felt by the grieving person.

What is a Condolence Letter? 

A condolence letter or condolence note* is an expression of sympathy to a person who has experienced pain, grief or a misfortune; it may be one of the most meaningful, long-lasting acts of kindness and compassion you can give to a grieving person.

To paraphrase the lyrics to an old BeeGee's song,
    "It's only words,
    and words are all I have to take your ache away."
A simple, hand-written condolence letter or note can be a great source of comfort and a gift of healing for anyone who is grieving a loss.

Well-written condolences can help ease feelings of pain following the death of a love one. A sympathy letter can also be a reminder of happier memories of the loved one who has died. A condolence note is a very concrete way of letting the grieving person know that he or she is in your thoughts.

* The terms condolence and sympathy are used interchangeably. You could just as easily be writing a sympathy letter or note.

Image: Old Condolence Letter.

Why Should I Write a Condolence Letter? 

Bereaved people acknowledge that condolence notes or sympathy letters from friends become some of their most meaningful mementos of a difficult time. These letters become tangible reminder of friends who cared.

The bereaved person may read letters of condolence over again days, weeks or years after the loss.

Re-reading the old condolence letters is a way to re-experience the loving thoughts and tender memories written by caring friends, during a time of great sorrow.

Letters of condolence may even become treasured mementos to save, cherish and pass down through the family.

Image Source: Modified Microsoft Image.

Treasured Condolence Cards and Letters on Flickr 

Whether old or new, written on beautiful stationery, lined paper or a note pad all of these sympathy letters and note were important to the recipient so that they were saved

Getting Ready to Write a Condolence Letter 

There are a few basic supplies that you need to have available to write a condolence letter:
    * Stationery, Writing or Note Paper
    * Sympathy or Condolence Card
    * Pen
    * Envelope
    * Stamp
    * Favorite Quote Book
Probably the most important thing is some quiet time when you can be uninterrupted and write the letter.

What to Use to Write a Letter of Condolence 

The type of stationery, sympathy card or note card you choose to use for sending your condolences depends a lot on the circumstances of the loss and the reason that you are writing the sympathy card.

If you are writing a sympathy card for a friend or family member, you may choose a different type of card than if it was for a co-worker, a patient or an employeer.

In general you can choose from the following:
    Blank cards with artwork. You can keep a supply handy in your desk.
    Cards reflecting your place of work.
    Sympathy cards (store bought).
    Personal Sympathy Cards.
    Handwritten notes on letterhead.
    Typed letters or notes on letter head.
You might decide to keep several different types of stationery and sympathy cards around, so you have them available to used--just in case.

Image Source: Sympathy Card. Available on Amazon.

THE TWO PURPOSES OF A SYMPATHY LETTER:

1. To offer a tribute to or a remembrance of the deceased.

2. To be a source of comfort to the survivors.

Guidelines for Writing a Condolence Letter 

When you are writing, think of the sympathy letter as a paying a visit to a grieving person on paper or a written condolence call.

Here are some other general suggestions for writing a condolence letter.
  • Condolence letters should be written and sent promptly, within two weeks after the death.
  • The message should be neatly hand written on stationery.
  • If you are sending as a condolence note be sure to write a note by hand and inserted into a beautiful card.
  • The most effective condolence letters are the ones written as though you were actually talking with the grieving person.
  • Write the letter the way you would normally speak to the person.
  • Ideally, the person reading your letter should feel as though you were sitting with the grieving person.

What to Include in a Condolence Letter 

Parts of a Condolence Letter

Zunin and Zunin, a husband and wife team and authors of The Art of Condolence studied thousands of condolence letters to determine how they were organized.

They identified seven key parts to include when writing a condolence letter.

This page includes several different examples of condolence letters written using Zunin and Zunin's seven part model.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and the name of the deceased.
  2. Express your sympathy.
  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.
  4. Include a memory of the deceased.
  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths or special qualities.
  6. Offer help, but make sure it is a specific offer.
  7. End the letter with a thoughtful word, a hope, a wish or expression of sympathy e.g. "You are in my thoughts and prayers." ("Sincerely," "love," or "fondly," may not be the best choices.)

How to Write an Effective Condolence Letter 

These recommendations on how to write an effective condolence letter are based on guidelines from Dr. Ron Wolfson book "A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement."
  1. Acknowledge the loss and name of the deceased.

    This sets the purpose and tone of the letter. Let the bereaved know how you learned of the death and how you felt upon hearing the news. Using the name of the deceased is a tribute that comforts most mourners.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Let the bereaved know your sadness. Use words of sympathy that share your own sorrow. This will remind the bereaved they are not alone in their suffering.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    Acknowledge those characteristics that you cherished most about the person who has died. These might be qualities of personality (leadership, sensitivity), or attributes (funny, good at sports), or ways the person related to the world (religious, devoted to community welfare). You might write of the special relationship you noted between the deceased and the bereaved.

  4. Recall a memory about the deceased.

    Tell a brief story or anecdote that features the deceased. Try to capture what it was about the person in the story that you admired, appreciated or respected. Talk about how the deceased touched your life. Use humor-the funny stories are often the most appreciated by the bereaved.

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths.

    Bereavement often brings with it self-doubt and anxiety about one's own personal worth. By reminding the bereaved of the qualities they possess that will help them through this period, you reinforce their ability to cope. Among these qualities might be patience, optimism, religious belief, resilience, competence, and trust. If you can recall something the deceased used to say about the mourner in this regard, you will really be giving your friend a gift.

  6. Offer help, but be specific.

    "If there is anything I can do, please call" actually puts a burden on those in grief who may be totally at a loss about what needs to be done. A definite offer to help with shopping, the kids, volunteer work, or whatever is more appreciated. Or offer to contact the mourner after the initial shiva period when the commotion has subsided. Then, do it-don't make an offer you can't fulfill.

  7. End with a word or phrase or sympathy.

    "Sincerely," "love," or "fondly," don't seem like appropriate ways of closing a sympathy letter.

    Some alternative closures include:
      "You are in my thoughts and prayers."
      "Our love is with you always."
      "We share in your grief and send you our love."
      "My affectionate respects to you and yours."

Examples of Condolence Letters 

This lens includes examples of many different kinds of condolence letters.

The different condolence letters may give you ideas or can be used as starting points as you begin to write your own letter.
  1. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Parent
  2. Example of a Condolence Letter for a Sudden Loss
  3. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Relative
  4. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Baby of Newborn
  5. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Child
  6. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Co-worker, Colleague
  7. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Patient
  8. Example of a Condolence Letter for the Death of a Pet
  9. Example of a Historical Condolence Letter for the Death of Soldier

Example of a Letter for the Death of a Parent 

Sympathy Letter to a Friend on the Death of Her Father

An example of a sympathy letter to a friend following the death of her father.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and the name of the deceased.

    Example:

    Dear ______,

    I was saddened to hear the news about the death of your father, _________.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Example:

    Our thoughts are with you and your loved ones during this difficult time of loss.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    Example:

    I enjoyed getting a chance to meet your father, _________ during his visit to California. He seemed to be quite a character.

  4. Include a memory of the deceased.

    Example:

    I remember one time when we all went for the outing with the children. He seemed to be enjoying the outing with all of the children very much. What a beautiful day for a walk.

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths or special qualities.

    Example:

    I know that your great strength, family and friends will help you at this time of loss.

  6. Offer help, but make sure it is a specific offer.

    Example:

    I will call you in a few days to see if you need help with watching the children or with the memorial service.

  7. End the letter with a thoughtful word, an inspirational quote, a hope, a wish or expression of sympathy such as "You are in my thoughts and prayers."

    Example:

    Remember that "Those who live in the hearts of others never die."

    Keeping you in my thoughts during this difficult time,

    (Your Signature) __________

Example of a Condolence Letter for a Sudden Loss 

Sympathy Letter to the Remaining Spouse on the Death

An example of a sympathy letter to the spouse of a colleague who died following a sudden, unexpected death.
  1. Acknowledge the loss.

    Example:

    Dear ___________

    I was deeply saddened to hear the news about the sudden death of _________.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Example:

    My thoughts are with you and your family during this difficult time. We are all in a state of shock.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    Example:

    _________ was such a funny, entertaining and supportive person to be around. She was often a bright spot in my day. I will miss seeing her.

  4. Include a memory about the deceased.

    Example:

    I remember one time when ___________.

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths or special qualities.

    Example:

    I know you will miss ________ greatly. During this difficult time, I know you will draw upon your own strength and the strength of loved ones that hold you in their thoughts.

  6. Offer Assistance.

    Example:

    You have my deepest sympathy. I will be in touch to see if you need help with the memorial service.

  7. End with a thoughtful word, quote or phrase.

    Example:

    Remember there are many people who care about you and are thinking about you and share you loss in this difficult time of sorrow.

    Your signature ____________

Example of a Letter for the Death of a Relative 

This example comes from Dr. Ron Wolfson book "A Time to Mourn, a Time to Comfort: A Guide to Jewish Bereavement."

Source: Virginia Commonwealth University: School of Medicine. 2007. How to Write a Condolence Letter. Palliative Care Curriculum for M3s.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and name the deceased.

    Dear Aunt Rachel,

    I was shocked when Mom called this morning to tell me the news of Uncle Jerry's death. I know he was not feeling well, but the sudden heart attack he suffered brought an end to this wonderful man that was too soon.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Words really cannot express how sad I feel. My heart is filled with sympathy on the loss of your beloved husband. I loved him too.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    Uncle Jerry was such a colorful man. I have never seen a man so dedicated to his work. He lived for the store. And was so funny; he loved to kid people, to kibbitz, to talk to the customers.

    Devoted to his beautiful family, especially you, he loved being surrounded by his children and grandchildren. I know the source of pride they were to him.

  4. Recall a memory about the deceased.

    It seems like yesterday that I was twelve years old and working during the summer at the market. I'll never forget how Uncle Jerry loved to work the aisles. He would get three guys, including me, and we'd stack cases of something on special up to the ceiling. It took hours. Then, when we'd be all done, he'd look at the display and say, "Nope. Let's put it over here!." and we'd have to take it down and start all over again. But he wanted it to be just right. He'd be all business, but when we were done, he'd take me across the street for lunch.

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths.

    I know how much you will miss Uncle Mort. We all will. But I know you will remember the many blessings of the beautiful years you shared together. He loved you so and you were always a a source of strength to him. I remember his tremendous devotion to you during your illness. The strength and willingness to live you demonstrated then will help you get through the days and months ahead.

  6. Offer help, but be specific.

    You know that Susie, the kids and I offer our sympathy and love. We hope to be in Omaha soon and we look forward to being with you.

  7. End with a word of phrase of sympathy.

    Our prayers and thoughts are with you.

    May God grand you comfort among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

    Ronnie

Special Considerations When Sending a Letter After the Death of a Child 

The death of a child, no matter what age, is always a difficult loss for parents to bear. Since many parents see children as an extension of themself, the death of a child is the death of hopes and dreams for the future.

The death of a child disrupts the natural order of thing in which grandparents die before parents and parents die before their children.

Photo Source: Phil Landowski. Dust to Dust. Royalty Free Use.
  1. The way that a child has died affects the type of grief that follows.

    Parents may grieve very differently over the death of a stillbirth, a baby, a sudden unexpected death or a prolonged illness.

  2. Guilt and anger are especially pronounced following the death of a child.

    Parents are likely to go through the "What if's" and "If only's."

  3. A child's death is a challenge to every marriage.

  4. The father's grief may be camouflaged or ignored.

  5. Siblings and grandparents are also mourning the death of the child, in addition to the parents.

  6. Families often struggle to make sense of the death.

Dear Parents: Letters to Bereaved Parents 

Example of a Letter for the Death of a Baby 

Sympathy Letter to the Parents of a Newborn or Baby

An example of a sympathy letter following the death of a baby or newborn.

With the death of a newborn, some of the sections may need to be left out, because there may not have been time to develop any special qualities or have a memory. Instead you might want to acknowledge the loss of hopes and dreams for the future.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and name the deceased (if known).

    Dear _______

    I was saddened to hear the news about the death of your baby, _________.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    I am so saddened by your loss.

    [Alt: I wish that your baby (fill in name) had survived.]

    [Alt: I wish things had turned out differently for you.]

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    _______ was such a happy baby and joy to have around.

    [This section may not be possible if the death was of a newborn.]

  4. Recall a memory about the deceased.

    I remember one time when... ___________.

    [This section may not be possible if the death was of a newborn.]

    I hope that your time together will bring you comfort.

    [Alt:I hope that the days will look brighter soon.]

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths.

    I know that your family and faith will help you through this most difficult of life challenges.

  6. Offer help, but be specific.

    If it would be helpful, I could take the kids to a movie for a while to give you some time to yourself. I will call you to set up a time.

  7. End with a word or phrase or sympathy.

    I am thinking about your and your family and holding you in my thoughts and prayers,

    (Your Signature) __________

Example of a Letter for the Death of a Child 

Sympathy Letter to the Parents of a Child

A Shorter Sympathy note on the death of a child.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and name the deceased.

    Dear ______,

    We are so saddened by the news of your beautiful daughter ________ death.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    We wish we could find words to ease your pain.

    Losing a child is one of the saddest life challenges and words that can give you true comfort are difficult to find.

  3. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths.

    Do know that we are thinking of you during this time of loss.

  4. End with a word or phrase or sympathy.

    You have our sincere condolences and sympathy.

    In sympathy,

    (Your Signature) __________

Example for the Death of a Co-worker, Colleague 

Sympathy Letter to a Family Member on the Death of a Co-worker

With a business setting, it is possible that you maybe writing a condolence letter about someone who has died that you have never met. It is often the case that someone sends a condolence letter from the entire office or company.

Even if you have never met the deceased, it can be quite meaningful to the bereaved if you are able to recall any special qualities or memories they may have shared with you in the past about their loved one.
  1. Acknowledge the loss.

    Dear Mary,

    This morning I heard the sad news of your husband's sudden and unexpected death.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Let me extend my heartfelt sympathy to you and your family. The loss must touch you very deeply as you face these first numbing days of grief.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    (Note: This may not apply if you never met the deceased.)

  4. Recount a memory about the deceased.

    (Note: This may not apply if you never met the deceased. However, it can be quite meaningful to the grieving person if you can recall any special qualities or memories they may have shared with you or others in the office about their loved one.)

  5. Note special qualities of the bereaved.

    During this difficult period, I know you will draw on your faith and deep personal resources that so many of us have come to respect and admire.

  6. Offer assistance.

    John and I would be able to help pick up your dry cleaning or help with the shopping. We will be in touch by phone a bit later to see how we can help.

  7. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase.

    Keep in mind that this office is filled with people who care about you and are thinking about you during your time of great sorrow.

    With Heartfelt Condolences

    Your Signature _________________

Physicians and Condolence Letters 

A physician's responsibility for the care of a patient does not end when the patient dies. There is one final responsibility--to help the bereaved family members.

A letter of condolence can contribute to healing a bereaved family and can help achieve closure in the relationship between the physician and the patient's family ... Whether intentional or not, the failure to communicate with family members conveys a lack of concern about their loss."

Source: Bedell SE, Cadenhead K, Graboys TB. The doctor's letter of condolence. N Engl J Med 2001 Apr 12;344(15):1162-4.

Example of a Letter for the Death of a Patient 

Sympathy Letter to a Family Member on the Death of a Patient

This is an sample of a letter of condolence that might be written by a physician to the patient's family following a death.
  1. Acknowledge the loss and the name of the deceased.

    Example:

    Dear ______,

    I want to express my sympathy to you and your family on the death of your father, _________.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Example:

    My thoughts are with you and your loved ones during this difficult time of loss.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    Example:

    I enjoyed caring for your father, _________ for these many years. I am honored to have served as his personal physician.

  4. Include a memory of the deceased.

    Example:

    Your father shared many stories about his family during his visits over the years. It was obvious he was very proud of his family.

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths or special qualities.

    Example:

    I know that your great strength, family and friends will help you at this time of loss.

  6. Offer help, but make sure it is a specific offer.

    Example:

    Someone from the office or hospice will be in touch by phone in a week's time to see how you are doing.

  7. End the letter with a thoughtful word, expression of sympathy such as "You are in my thoughts and prayers."

    Example:

    If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

    With sincere sympathy

    (Your Signature) __________


Pet Loss Letters

Pet losses are often fall into the category of a disenfranchised loss, or a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, publicly mourned, or socially supported. The person who has suffered such a loss may feel that he or she does not have the right to act as if he/she is bereaved.


In addition, the death of a pet may trigger old griefs and other old losses, serving as a reminder of previous losses.

Since many people don't understand the importance of the loss of a pet, the grief that results following the death of a pet may suppressed by the bereaved. Pet owners grieving the loss of a beloved companion pet may feel that others will think they are foolish, mourning the death of an animal.

When sending condolences on the death of a pet, there are a few things that people should consider.
  1. Use the pet's name.
    The animal was very special to your friend and should be named, not referred to as "your dog" or "your cat."
  2. Recall the pet.
    If possible include one of your own experiences with your friend's pet. Mention one of the animal's positive or lovable traits.
  3. Do not talk about getting a new pet.
    It takes many people time to get over the death of a pet. The condolence letter is not the place to tell your friend to think about getting another new pet.

Veterinarians and Condolence Letters 

    Genuine, specific, timely emotional support of caregivers at the time of euthanasia is an important part of the veterinary professional obligation.

    [This type of] support helps ease client pain during the grieving process.
In this article veterinarian, Dr. Bruce Feldmann shares how he sends the condolence letter and encourages his colleagues to hand-write condolence letters that reflect positive personal thoughts and feelings about the patient, the client, and the circumstances of the loss.

Source: Feldmann BM. Thoughts on the Condolence Letter. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Nov 15;217(10):1473-4.

Example of a Letter for the Death of a Pet 

  1. Acknowledge the loss and the name of the pet.

    Example:

    Dear ______,

    I want to express my sympathy to you on the death of your companion pet, Sparky.

  2. Express your sympathy.

    Example:

    It was apparent that the decision to ease his final days was not an easy one to make.

  3. Note special qualities of the pet.

    Example:

    He was a great friend and a special companion for you these past few years. I enjoyed caring for your Sparky.

  4. Include a memory of the deceased pet.

    Example:

    Sparky was a very special dog that came to you during your time of need. He had a caring heart.

  5. Offer help, but make sure it is a specific offer.

    Example:

    Someone from the office will be in touch by phone in a a few days to see how you are doing.

  6. End the letter with a thoughtful word, expression of sympathy such as "You are in my thoughts and prayers."

    Example:

    We hope you will give yourself permission to feel the grief. Thinking of you,

    (Your Signature) __________

Image Source: Writing a Sympathy Note. Modified Microsoft Image.

Kirsti A. Dyer MD, MS, FT is a respected physician, an expert in life challenges, loss, grief and bereavement, professional health educator, professor, lecturer and author.

Dr. Dyer is the Domain Designer for the Journey of Hearts website, created in 1997 as the first and only physician based website devoted to educating people about the normal grief response.

Dr. Dyer is also a former NICU Parent. Based on her experiences with her youngest daughter, founded the NICU Parent Support Site. 

Depending on the situation, Dr. Dyer wears a variety of hats, and uses different aliases...Comfortdoc, Griefdoc, Momdoc, Professordoc and now since becoming part of the Squidoo Community, Lensdoc or Lensdoctor.

In September 2008, Dr. Dyer became one of the original group of Giant Squids. She prefers to think of the Giant Squids as Squid Gigantea or Squids of Unusual Size (SUS's).

In July 2008 Dr. Dyer achieved the coveted Giant Squids 100 (or Giant 100 Club) status on Squidoo, joining the elite squad of the best and most prolific lensmasters on Squidoo who have made more than 100 lenses. 

Also in July Dr. Dyer became one of the new Squidoo Activists the new group on Squidoo, the Champions for Charity dedicated to doing even more for charities and NonProfits using Squidoo.

In October 2008 she received one of the special recognition Giant Squid Awards, being chosen as the Generous Giant an honor she is very thrilled to have received.

For even more information see her Lensography, a listing of her Squidoo lenses or her Professional Bio to discover her many areas of interests.

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The importance of memorials in the grieving process

1 comments

  1. Rob Writing // December 17, 2008 2:13 PM  

    This is a great article; very comprehensive. I love the suggestion of handwriting the letter. Too many people just type something up and mail it off. That's not personal, and it can actually make someone feel worse when they receive it.