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What to Write in a Sympathy Card – Words of Sympathy

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By Betty Killebrew

Your immediate answer to the question:
“What is the proper way to express my sympathy?”

     Every time a person passes, there are those who are directly affected and others who are affected to some lesser degree.  Those who are closest to the deceased are those on the inner circle—the place where they not only need to deal with the death but with the myriad details that will need to be handled because of the death.  The inner circle is usually comprised of immediate family, but there are a great many other people affected.  There is the larger group of extended family members, there are close friends, casual friends, co-workers, even the associates of all these people who are aware that someone they care about has been affected to some degree by this death.
     When we hear news of someone’s passing, whether family, friend or acquaintance, we are not always sure how we should go about expressing our sympathy to those who were close to the deceased; and often when we need to send an expression of sympathy we are not only mildly bereaved ourselves but are close to several members of that “inner circle” of grief.  When we find ourselves in that situation, if we aren’t already well-versed in the best way to express our sympathy, we are not in any mood to take a long study course on how to do it.  So here is the SHORT VERSION of how to express your sympathy.
     Most of us opt to send a sympathy card but a personal note can be even more welcome.   Anyone can send one or the other in proper fashion and there’s no need to be afraid.  Here’s what you need to know:

  1. You have decided you should send a sympathy note to a bereaved person you care about.
  2. This recognition means you NEED to follow through.  Sure, you could just let the whole thing go, but if you don’t follow your best instincts, you won’t be the best person you can be and you will fail in the opportunity to honor the memory of the deceased.
  3. For reasons one and two above, you are committed to writing the note—or at the very least adding a few personal words to a purchased card.
  4. You know the bereaved person you want to comfort with your words.  You know yourself.  You know the relationship you have had with the bereaved and/or with the deceased.
  5. You KNOW WHAT TO SAY.  (Yes—I just heard your instant denial, but you really do know what to say. Refer to item 4 for a clue.)
  6. If you’re going to do this, now’s the time. So let’s get started. Let’s do it now.

     First:  gather your tools.  You’ll need a black or blue ink pen that writes smoothly, a card or some stationery and a stamp. (I like to use a generic U.S. stamp such as the flag stamp or a “forever” stamp.  This would not be the best time to use a stamp honoring a deceased movie star. ) By the way, do you have the address?  Is it in the phone book?  Hey, it’s probably on line; but if you can’t find it, if you act right away you can send your card or note in care of the funeral home handling the services.

     Quick choice—card or composed note?   Quick answer—a card for those occasions when you think you “should” send something but your emotions are not deeply involved; a note for those times when you are deeply moved.
If you choose the card?   Give at least a few minutes to reading the text.  If it’s way too syrupy or spiritual or “sappy” for you, keep looking until you find one that says something that is closer to what’s in your own mind and heart.  Then add a handwritten message—at least one line.  Here’s an example:

              “Jenny, I am so sorry.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.   John”   (If you’re not really on a “first name” basis with Jenny, maybe you should say, “Miss Jones, I am so sorry.  My thoughts and prayers are with you.  John Smith”)

      By the way, try your message on a separate sheet of paper first.  See how much space it will take and make sure you can spell all the words.  And write legibly.  A scrawl that the bereaved person must pore over to decipher is not sympathetic; it’s disrespectful.
     If you choose a note?   Congratulations, you have chosen the more difficult path, but it’s not all THAT difficult.  I know you can do it.   The trick is to write exactly what is on your mind—quickly without editing.  Then go back and spruce it up a little.
Here’s an example:

     “Jenny—I am still in shock.  I can’t believe old Joe got killed in a traffic accident.  I’m all broke up over it so I know you feel terrible too.  This just isn’t fair.   John”

     Okay, this is rough and your thoughts may be smoother; but for the sake of example, let’s take that little message and smooth out the edges.  (Think simplicity—elegant simplicity would be wonderful, but simplicity itself is the goal.)

“Dear Jenny,

     I was deeply sorry to hear of Joe’s passing.  I can’t stop thinking about it and I wanted to let you know how much I care.  It’s hard to know why terrible things happen to good people.  Joe was one of the best and I will never forget our friendship.

     John Smith”

     Address it and send it. (It’s really that simple.)
     What!  You aren’t feeling confident.  Let’s talk some more about this whole “sympathy note” concept.  If you’re up to reading it, I want to tell you the more detailed version of the whys, whens, and hows of sympathy messages.
More about sympathy messages
     So, under what circumstances should you send a message of sympathy? The answer is simple: if you have to ask, you should send one.  Being caught up in the details of handling the loss of a loved one, it is unlikely that the bereaved will take a tally of who sent a message and who did not.  However, the knowledge that you and others cared about their loved one and about their grief can be an enormous comfort.  You don’t send a sympathy card or write a comforting note to earn friendship points.  You do it because you care—and there is no better reason.
     Of course you have no social need to send a message every time anyone you know passes away.  For instance, if your relationship with the deceased was very casual and you don’t know his or her relatives, it would not in any way be necessary to send a card.  On the other hand, in times of bereavement, I have been surprised and pleased to hear from a number of people who cared more than I would ever have known.   Particularly when somebody dies unexpectedly, it is very important to them to know their loved one made an impact on the lives of other people.  When my mother passed away, I took comfort in every visitor, every flower, and every card or note. The fact that other people cared about her was a great source of solace; so you should remember that it is NEVER wrong from a social standpoint to send sympathy messages, although it is OFTEN wrong not to do so.
     In our world today, when a fellow human traveler faces sorrow at the loss of a loved one, the word is often passed among friends through face book messages.  Such news often travels at the speed of light amongst a circle of acquaintances.  This does not mean that it would be appropriate to dash off a sympathy message on the wall of the bereaved or send them an e-mail expressing your heartfelt dismay at their loss. If the bereaved happens to contact you directly by any means of communication, it would be proper to respond in kind.  They may be reaching out for comfort in a time of need and it would be unthinkably rude not to reply.  However, answering a grieving e-mail from a friend or relative who has suffered a loss will not substitute for sending them a sympathy message in proper form.
     A card or letter sent through the mail is the appropriate way to express your sympathy, but many of us let the occasion slip by–either by neglecting the task entirely or simply scrawling a signature on a card purchased off the rack at the drugstore.  Believe me, a signed card is better than overlooking the duty entirely, but it is far better for you to add a small personal message to the card or even write a simple note to the bereaved in lieu of using a printed card.
       If you do choose a card, choose it carefully and be sure to “personalize” it with at least a one line handwritten comment before signing.  Your message, either by card or personal note, should be courteous and kind.             You’re writing to someone who is suffering from grief.  You should express your sorrow, concern and comfort, taking care not to try to negate their feelings of loss and grief.
But even though there is no right or wrong way to express your sympathy, here are a few things you may wish to consider.

        Mechanics—write legibly in clear black or blue ink.  Address the envelope using the same black or blue ink you use within.  Write the message on white, buff or some other neutral colored paper of a standard size.  This is not the time to use your sunflower stationery or an initialed slip of paper from your note pad.

        Suitability—if you decide to go with a card (always adding that short personal message), pick out the card with the deceased in mind.  A card may be either distinctly masculine or feminine in nature.  Look at it, read it; but don’t buy it until you’re sure you’ve chosen the right one.

        Religious sensibility—No Catholic halos to Protestants, no Jesus figures on cards if the deceased (or the bereaved) is Jewish.  This is not for the purpose of “political correctness;” it is simply courteous.  Sending a card with the wrong religious message could indicate that you really don’t care that much after all.

       Honesty—don’t fake it.  Say something you really mean.

       Compassion—the person you are writing to is grieving.  Your message should recognize their grief.  But don’t try to “talk them out of it.”   Respect their grief and express the hope that knowing that other people care will help them find solace.

        Memory—a bereaved person finds comfort in memories of the deceased.  It’s always proper to share a positive moment from your past history.  (“I never will forget the time Sam stopped his car to help an elderly woman change her tire.”)

        Simplicity—Make your sentences short, direct and sincere.  Grieving is hard on concentration.  The most comforting messages will be those that cut the message to the simplest form.  Don’t make the writing or wording so confusing the person needs to read it more than once to make sense of it.  Just get to the point.

      Some people believe that all personal notes must be written by hand.  Although I often do write them by hand, there are other times when I print a short note on my computer using good quality paper in a reduced size paper that is still large enough to be folded at least one time before fitting perfectly in the chosen envelope.  There are many sets of neutral stationery available at stationery counters everywhere that will fill this requirement nicely.  When I write such notes, I sometimes send them as stand alone messages of sympathy and sometimes insert them into a printed card.  If you plan to send only the note, make sure the letter expresses your sorrow; if adding it to a card, you may use it to add a personal touch to the card’s message.  For instance, you may wish to write something like this:


“Dear Jenny,

        I want you to know that the last time I saw your dad he mentioned how proud he was that you decided to return to school. I know you will continue to make him proud as you go on through life.

                           John Smith

                           (Minister, United Evangelic Church)”

     In my opinion, using your computer and printer to prepare a legible note that the recipient can read easily is preferable to scrawling a heartfelt message that the recipient is unable to decipher.  Just be sure to write the letter in the proper tone for the recipient, using the style appropriate for your relationship with them.  For instance, your letter to a business acquaintance who has lost his wife would be quite different from the letter you would send your cousin in a similar situation. And pay attention to font.  Something clear and simple such as Arial is more appropriate than trying to “fake” the handwritten requirement with some flowery script that can’t be easily read.
     Your signature MUST be handwritten and it should be written in a manner appropriate to your relationship with the recipient.  For example, if you attend a large church where you know many of the congregation by face but perhaps don’t know them well on a personal level, in a letter to a fellow church member it would be appropriate to use a form of signature that will help the bereaved recall the connection you have with them or with the deceased, perhaps by adding a few words to your signature. For instance:

          “Bob and Betty Smith, Members Northside Memorial Church.”

      If you are writing to a childhood friend who has long called you by a nickname you would be correct to sign your letter or card in this way:  Robert “Bobby” Smith; or if you are still very close,  it would be perfectly correct to sign the card, “Bobby.”   Just be sure that your signature will tell the recipient who you are.  There are a lot of men called Robert or Bobby.  The signature is to “signify” who you are.  I’m sure you know how to make sure the reader of this letter knows which “Robert” or “Bobby” you are.
     If you are close enough to ether the deceased or the bereaved for your presence to be expected at the wake or funeral, it is particularly important for you to send a note—and send it right away—if you cannot attend.  The message should express your personal sorrow, your sorrow for their loss and include a statement saying something like this:   “I am so sorry I cannot (or could not) be with you at the services for Jerry.  (A good HONEST explanation could follow, perhaps….’because I was away on a short business trip.’) My thoughts and prayers have been with you throughout the last few days.”
      If you have a talent for writing short verse, you may wish to compose a poem in lieu of a note.  Here’s one I wrote for a religious person who had suffered a long illness before her death.  I was inspired to write this because I knew she was a person of deep faith who fully expected to have an eternal afterlife and would not want her family to grieve too deeply.  I wanted to remind her kin that she had been a “faithful servant.”

In memory of Janet C. Graham who passed away, January 10, 2012.

A Place Prepared for Me

              When the shadows grow too long and the weary road too steep,

               I ask that those who love me do not gnash their teeth and weep;

              For I have been a faithful servant and will now meet face to face

              With my loving Heavenly Father, Who’s prepared for me a place.


John 14:1-3:  Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.

                            With Deepest Sympathy, Betty L. Killebrew

       I added a piece of my personal art and a reference to an appropriate bible verse.  I printed it on card stock in a size that exactly fit a large greeting card envelope.   I did not sign this card in handwriting, as I wanted it to appear as “professional” as possible.  Instead, I included in the envelope a piece of plain paper with a handwritten message and signature.

     In summary, expressions of sympathy can take many forms. When you realize that you want to or should send such a message:

      The most important thing to DO is send one.

      But there are also a few “don’ts” to bear in mind.

     Don’t offer to help UNLESS you will follow through.  Often we tell bereaved people to “call us if they need anything.” This is easy to say but is unlikely to be acted upon. The bereaved person is unlikely to call; and even if they did, you might not be able to provide the requested service at the desired time.  If you want to offer help, make it a “specific” offer and don’t fail to follow through.  You might say for instance, “I’ll be over in a few days to mow the lawn.  You don’t need to worry about that right now.”

     Don’t write a newsy little letter to a bereaved person.  Stick to the subject at hand, using some variation of each of the following themes: You heard about, read about or were told about their loss.  You are sorry for their loss; you hope that knowing other people care will comfort them; you will always remember their loved one.  And that’s about it!  Why?  Because that’s all you need to say at this point and all they need to hear.  Later on you can get together with them and distract them with your tales.  Right now, your purpose is comfort.
And finally…

     Don’t ever be embarrassed to go with your heart.  This is the most important “don’t” of all. If you write what you really feel, it will never be inappropriate.

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