Condolences and Sympathy Letters

Some sources say that a condolence letter is one only sent in sympathy for a death, while a letter of sympathy or a sympathy letter can be sent for a death or other loss. According to Merriam-Webster Online, www.m-w.com, condolence is defined as sympathy with another in sorrow or an expression of sympathy. For that reason, this book treats all three as interchangeable terms for any letter expressing empathy for any hardship.

Often referred to as a sympathy letter or letter of sympathy, a condolence letter is not an easy thing to write. (That's why so many people take the “easy way out” and send a sympathy card.) You should write a condolence letter when an event occurs that affects somebody important in the life of a business associate or employee, friend, neighbor, or relative, such as:

  • An accident or injury

  • A death

  • A devastating natural disaster or other financial loss, such as a job loss or bankruptcy

  • A divorce

  • A miscarriage or stillbirth

  • A serious illness or injury

  • A terminal illness

  • A violent crime

Often those unfortunate occurrences in somebody's life — the types of things you've been told that you “don't talk about,” such as mental illness or addiction rehabilitation — are times when a sympathetic, understanding letter can offer needed encouragement in otherwise seemingly hopeless circumstances.

Following the examples given in Appendix B will help you deal with planning the letter — deciding what to write. Some appropriate things to include are the following:

  • An explanation of how you learned of the news

  • A brief, appropriate expression of your feelings of loss or grief

  • An offer of thoughts or prayers in keeping with your faith, stated in a way that doesn't offend the beliefs of the letter recipient

  • A sentiment offering affection, comfort, concern, or hope for the future

  • A specific suggestion about how you'd like to offer any help or assistance

  • The victim's name

The purpose of your letter isn't necessarily to make the recipient feel better. That may come later. However, at the time the letter is received, the recipient is grieving. You're under no obligation, nor is it appropriate, to try to cheer up the person. A condolence or sympathy letter acknowledges the grief. It's a written reflection of the compassion you feel for and share with those grieving.

There are some things you should leave out of a condolence letter, such as overly dramatic adjectives to describe the loss. Phrases like “he's in a better place” or “God's will” can be insulting rather than comforting. Lastly, while it's appropriate to express your feelings about the loss, don't belabor the point. The intent of your letter is to offer condolence, not to elicit sympathy from the letter recipient for yourself.

Whenever possible, a short letter or note written in sympathy for a friend or family member should be handwritten on plain, personal stationery. A card is also appropriate if you include a handwritten sentiment as well. Longer messages, or those sent to a business acquaintance, client, colleague, customer, or employee with whom you did not work closely, may be typed. Examples of such typed letters are shown in Appendix B.

I have some fond memories of happy times spent with the deceased. Is it out of line to relate those in my condolence letter?

It's not only appropriate; in most cases, it will be appreciated. Also include things such as an explanation of those traits the deceased possessed that you admired or an acknowledgment of any special award or service he or she received or performed. Including such specifics helps make the letter more sincere.

Death

(Date)

Dear Becky,

I was sorry to hear about the death of your brother. While growing up, I remember how envious I was of your having an older brother. Matthew was always so considerate whenever I visited your house. I never once remember hearing him complain when he had to help us fix one of our bikes or later, when we were older, drop us off somewhere if he was going to be using the car. It's a sad fact of life that living so far away has meant that I've lost touch with some of those peripherally close to my life. I'm glad that we've remained friends, even at such a long distance — and I want to let you know that even though I'm not physically there to help, I am here for you in your time of loss.

With love,

Sue

Natural Disaster

(Date)

Dear Cheryl,

I just learned about the fire. Thank goodness everybody in the family is safe! Still, our hearts go out to you in what has to be a difficult time. I know how much pride you take in your home, and grieve knowing you've not only lost possessions, but treasured and sentimental keepsakes as well.

Larry and I are planning a trip to visit his parents next weekend, so I'll give you a call later this week to inquire about what you need — and about how we can help.

You remain in our hearts and prayers. Hang in there!

Warmly,

Sarah

Victim of Crime

(Date)

Dear Chris and Jeremy,

Powell and I just heard about the vandalism done to your place. Any invasion of your home is not only frustrating — it invades your sense of safety, too. Your home should be your haven and if there's anything we can do to help restore some semblance of order to the chaos created by this crime, you only need to ask. In fact, I'll make it easy for you to ask by giving you a call before the weekend to see when and how you can use our help.

Sincerely,

Baxter

Death of a Pet

(Date)

Dear Mildred,

Please accept my condolences on the death of your beloved Shadow. Iknow she was more than a cat; she was a part of your family. There's seldom a day that goes by that we don't talk, but sometimes such familiarity can lead to the assumption that things are understood. I didn't want to take that chance. This note is to let you know that I care.

Warmest wishes,

Gertrude

Keep in mind that the purpose of a condolence letter is to express sympathy, not pity. If you have any doubts about the message you've written, have someone whose opinion you trust read it. Even better: Read the card aloud to that person so you both can “hear” whether or not your sentiment conveys its intended purpose.

Loss of a Baby

(Date)

Dear Gloria,

John and I were saddened to hear that you lost the baby. We know how much you and Benjamin were looking forward to having another child. If there is anything we can do to help you during your grieving process, please know that we're here to help.

With love,

Judy

Serious Illness or Injury

(Date)

Dear Gloria and Mark,

David and I were devastated to learn about Jeremy's illness. As parents, we do all within our power to protect our children. For those times when life throws something in our paths that we're powerless to help a child avoid, all we can do is pull together — and find the strength to endure. Please know that all of you are in our thoughts and prayers.

Warm regards,

Janet

Terminal Illness

(Date)

Dear Joshua,

I hope you don't mind, but Jason told me about your illness. Please know that you are in my heart and prayers. I'll give you a call soon. I'm hoping you' llfeel up to having me drop by for a visit.

Also know that if, at any time when I call, you don't feel up to talking or a visit, I hope you'll tell me so. I won't be offended. I'll understand. I only want what's best for you.

I'm looking forward to seeing you as soon as you're up to it.

Fondly,

Janet

A terminal illness doesn't mean that the victim's death is imminent. Treatments for cancer and AIDS now offer patients extended hope for the future. Despite relapses and crisis moments, chances are the patient will continue to enjoy life for years to come. Keep that in mind when you write your message.

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