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How to Write a Condolence Letter

Updated on June 20, 2013

When someone we know, whether personally or through a friend, dies, it's the most natural thing in the world to want to offer sympathy and condolences to the people who were closest to them. Although sometimes it may not seem so, humans are naturally compassionate creatures - we have the ability to emphathize, which means we can put ourselves in the other persons shoes and imagine how they might be feeling.

How to do this though? Death is such a sensitive issue, fraught as it is, with the crushed emotions and profound grief of those left behind, that we sometimes feel uncomfortable about how to express our sympathy. We don't want to cause more hurt or say the 'wrong thing'. On top of this, death reminds us of our own mortality, so we are apt to avoid dealing with it where possible..

In Western cultures, flowers and cards or letters are among the commonest expressions of sympathy when a friend or relative dies
In Western cultures, flowers and cards or letters are among the commonest expressions of sympathy when a friend or relative dies | Source

Just Write from the Heart

In truth most people are extremely appreciative of a condolence letter as it signifies that someone cares enough to have to made the effort. The words don't have to be clever or formal or expertly contrived in any way - they just have to be an honest expression of sympathy.That is the most important thing.

Many people prefer to send a condolence card than a letter, which is fine..it just depends on what you want to say and whether there's room on a card to express it. Although it's not essential, a tangible, handwritten letter has a personal aspect that makes it seem somehow special, more so than an email or a typed correspondance but again, the really important thing is what you say, not the form you choose to say it in.

A sympathy card with a short note is often all that's needed to express sympathy for a death
A sympathy card with a short note is often all that's needed to express sympathy for a death

The Traditional Sympathy Letter

There are really no hard and fast rules here but some suggestions might include mentioning something about the person who has passed away - perhaps an anecdote or mention of a particular personality trait:

I remember when John and I..

John had the best sense of humour...

It can be more problematic if we didn't know, or hardly knew the person who passed away but still wish to express sympathy to the loved one left behind. In the latter case, the letter could begin with something like the this:

Although I never met David, I know what it is to lose someone you love...

In this way we are showing that we can emphathise with the sense of loss, though we may not share the memories of a particular person. If we've never lost anyone we can still emphathise using our imaginations:

Thus far in life's journey, I've been very fortunate never to have lost lost anyone, so I can only imagine...

A Korean condolence ribbon, traditionally worn by relatives of the deceased
A Korean condolence ribbon, traditionally worn by relatives of the deceased

How Long Should a Condolence Letter be?

The length of the letter will depend on how much you want to express to the recipient but best not to force words out if you don't feel them coming naturally - a short sincere note is better than a tortured long one.

If you can, it's good to finish on a slightly positive note, looking toward the future but don't overdue this as grieving and feeling miserable is a natural process that has to be got through.Similarly it's best not to overuse hackneyed expressions such as 'time is a great healer' , 'your'e such a strong person' etc.

Finally, condolence letters are best sent within two weeks, since to delay longer would be to dredge up emotions that might be settling down. Keep it real and you can't go wrong.

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