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On Writing a Heartfelt Sympathy Card

Grief does funny things to people. And it does funny things to people who are trying to express their condolences to those who are grieving.

When someone dies it can be hard to know what to say, or what to write. And it’s easy to say something that’s unhelpful, even with the best will in the world.

If you think writing a sympathy card is hard, you’re certainly not alone. And there are lists on the internet of some of the things people have said when trying to console someone’s grief, that in the cold light of day seem horrendous, but were said with helping in mind (‘… you have other children’. This is apparently a true story, but imagine seeing this as a bereaved parent?).

You may decide to send your card through the post or give it to the family at the funeral. Some cards are left on the funeral flowers, others are left in the chapel of rest. But possibly, it will end up being a public message.

This sense of publicity in itself can add pressure, but it doesn’t need to.

So, What Do You Actually Write?

Even when it comes to a simple work colleague’s birthday card, there’s just something about a card message that makes you feel you need to suddenly become a writer. But when it comes with bereavement it’s especially hard to find the words.

And if you’ve been on the receiving end of something that feels terrible, it’s worth remembering that the writer has probably struggled to find the right words and isn’t intentionally being insensitive.

A great approach is to be genuine. It will go a lot further than you think. If you don’t know what to say, say that. It’s honest and the bereaved won’t be expecting perfection, just that you made the effort says it all.

Other ways to get it right include:

  • Pick a simple card
  • Handwrite the message
  • Keep generic phrases out of the message
  • Share a happy memory and keep the message positive
  • Don’t focus on the sadness of the death or the circumstances of the death
  • Offer help, but don’t be vague (I can look after the kids whenever you need, instead of I’m here if you need me)

Don’t fret over it, just be genuine. And try to put yourself in their shoes. What would you like to hear at a time like this? Remember, if you don’t have the words it’s perfectly acceptable to say this.

You should never compare your experiences to theirs and you should never tell them how to feel and when they should be feeling it. Is it ‘for the best’…? That’s not something you should be deciding, nor should you be saying ‘at least…’ this, that or the other.

Phrases to Avoid

You shouldn’t be telling anyone how to feel or deciding when they should feel better. With that in mind there are a few phrases you definitely want to be avoiding:

  • It will get easier…
  • You will feel better soon
  • You should look forwards
  • (the deceased) was too young
  • It’s for the best/It happened for a reason

Final Thoughts

Unfortunately, the circumstances will occur and writing a message in a sympathy card could be one of the trickier things you find yourself having to do.

But think along the lines of the famous anacronym KISS (keep it simple, stupid). You’re not expected to be a Nobel prize-worthy writer. It really is the thought that counts. Your message says you care, that you are thinking of the person, that you can offer support should they want it.

A simple line of honest thoughts is better than a bulk of generic text gleaned from an internet search. The right words will come when the time is right.