Unfortunately, I have a lot of experience with condolence notes. Not only have I written many condolence cards, but also I’ve been the recipient of others’ sympathy. And yet even with all my experience, each time I have to write a condolences note it’s still difficult. But the fact of the matter is that condolence cards are so appreciated, and it’s worth pushing past any anxiety you may have about what to say to show a friend how much you care.
To help you write a heartfelt condolence note, I’ve put together these three tips that offer solutions to some of the problems that I know people face when writing condolence cards.
Problem 1: I don’t know the person who died
If I don’t know the person who died, I often find myself asking, “What can I possibly say?” I assume that others who knew the person better than I did will be better at comforting my friend…so maybe my friend doesn’t need my condolence card.
Solution: Focus on my friend, not on the person who died
The truth is that my friend needs support from all around. If I am thinking about her and wishing her well in this difficult time, then my friend should know that! I write a card that focuses less on the person who died, and more on the impact that that person had on my friend. I write things like, “I’m sorry for your loss. Although I didn’t have the pleasure of getting to know your grandpa, I remember how much your eyes lit up when you talked about your annual fishing trips. I know you must be missing him so much, and I’m here for you if you want to talk about how you’re feeling.” By focusing on my friend and how she may be feeling, I’m able to write a note that is honest and supportive.
Problem 2: What difference can I make?
Sometimes, I think no matter what I can say to my friend, I won’t be able to make a difference. My friend is likely in immense pain, and who am I to think that I can help her? I worry that no matter how much time I spend choosing the exact words to express my compassion, it really won’t matter and it won’t really make my friend feel any better.
Solution: Make my supportive presence known
In this situation, it’s important to just make my presence known, and let my friend know that I’m thinking of her. In some ways, it doesn’t matter what I say; I know that my friend is struggling, and I know that cannot take away her burden. What I can do is let her know that I’m here for her and thinking of her.
Problem 3: What the heck do I say?
Whenever I write a condolence note, I cannot help but fear that I will say the wrong thing, and upset rather than console, my friend. I become obsessive about the “right” and “wrong” things to say. Not knowing what to say can sometimes paralyze me.
Solution: Speak from the heart, with sensitivity
While there aren’t really “right” and “wrong” things to say to a friend who’s experienced a loss, there are some things that feel better and worse to receive in a condolence note. (Trust me, I’ve seen it all.) Phrases like, “I’m sorry for your loss,” “I’m thinking of you,” and “I’m here for you” are all generic-but-sensitive ways of communicating your sympathy. Sharing a memory of the person who died and offering to help your friend through this difficult time are also good things to say.
And there are certain phrases that are best to avoid, specifically making assumptions about what happened and how your friend is feeling. Unless you know for sure that your friend believed in an afterlife, leave out phrases like, “I know he’s in a better place.” Don’t discuss any of the ailments the person suffered before he or she died; your friend doesn’t need to be reminded of that. And don’t tell your friend that she’ll feel better soon. Although your intentions might be good, it’s important to let your friend feel what she’s feeling, and know that you’ll be there for her no matter what.
If all else fails, get a nice card and simply write something along the lines of, “Please accept my sincere sympathies.” The fact that you took the time to do this will show that you care, and will undoubtedly make your friend feel supported.