Writing a sympathy card is a difficult and daunting task. My first thought when I sit down to write one is always something along the lines of “I feel like I don’t have the right words,” and my second thought is something along the lines of “everything I am writing sounds so cliché.” Various friends have emailed me questions about what to write in a sympathy card, and my short answer is: there is no single correct thing to write. I have been through a devastating loss and I still have no idea what to write.
The good news for those of you trying to support friends in the grieving process: I don’t really remember what the mountains of sympathy cards said. Thus, the important lesson is to just send one and do your best to convey your thoughts/feelings in it. In an attempt to make the writing process easier and more meaningful for the receiver, I offer the following tips for writing sympathy cards:
1.) Send a card (don’t just think about sending a card). Not knowing what to say, fear of saying the wrong thing, or fear that you didn’t send the card soon enough can be paralyzing. The most important thing is that you actually send a card; not what you say in it and not when it arrives. You may be thinking “But what can a card do to actually make someone feel better?” It lets someone know that you are thinking about them and that if they want to they can reach out to you. Sending a card opens a conversation. It will make it easier for you to call and say “I hope you got my card, I have been thinking about you….”
2.) What should I say? Sympathy cards should do three things:
1. Let the person know that you know what happened and are thinking about them. This often happens through phrases, such as, “I am sorry for your loss….” Or “You are in my thoughts….”
2. Share something you will remember about the person who died. For example, you could share a story or qualities you admired in them. If you didn’t know the person personally or well, you could share stories you remember that your friend (or whoever you are writing the card to) shared about them. For example, “I regret not ever meeting your mother, but I will never forget them time you told me about how she used to….” Hearing stories can be so special, especially stories the person has never heard.
3. Let them know that you are there for them. Let someone know the specific ways you can be there for them. This will, of course, depend on the relationship. For example, if you are writing to a close friend, you could suggest dinner (if you can see them in person) or a phone call the next week. Make sure to follow through on suggestions. You can also suggest helping with everyday tasks, such as, picking up groceries, picking kids up from school, etc. If you are writing to someone you are not as close to, you can let them know that you are there for them if they need anything and specific ways they can get a hold of you.
The following are examples of parts of sympathy cards that I believe were well written:
“In this time of hardship, I just wanted to let you know that I am always here for you with all my heart. Your father will be alive in our hearts – always.”
“He was a really great guy. I had so much fun skiing with you and him when I visited, and he was always generous and friendly, letting me stay in your home and at your cabin. I really appreciated those times.”
“Please know that we will be thinking of you in the weeks and months to come; wishing you strength and sweet memories.”
“While it is hard to see at first – time is a very effective healer. While you never get over your loss, you begin to view it in a different way. Memories of your loved one that once brought sadness begin to bring laughs and happiness further down the road.”
“Please, if you want to call, do. I am here for you whenever you want to talk or not talk. We can sit on the phone in silence if you want. It doesn’t matter. The road after this is a painful one, but it does get better.”
3.) What shouldn’t I say?
1. The following phrases I would avoid. (Remember that this is just my opinion, based on my own experiences and what I have learned from others).
• Your __________ would be so proud of you. (For what? I’m not going through this by choice…This can be appropriate to say later on, i.e. at a graduation)
• You are so strong, I don’t know what I would do if my __________ died. (Well, no one does. Moreover, how exactly do they know how strong I am?)
• Be strong for your _______. (After my father died, people kept telling me to be strong for my mother. I kept thinking: why would you say that? Yes, of course I will be there for my mother, but I also need to be there for myself. I felt like people were telling me to put my emotions aside.)
• At least _____ died in ______ way. ( Death is hard to deal with no matter now it happens. There is no consolation in saying things like: at least he died doing what he loved, at least she died with family there, at least it was quick….I would avoid this whole train of thought.)
• Don’t talk about yourself too much. (Yes, stories involving you and your relationship with the person has died can be great and if you are grieving over this person as well, that is fine to say). For example, if you have lost someone (or been through some difficult experience) this isn’t the place to write about it at length. Sharing stories and supporting someone based on your own experience is very important, but it is not appropriate to go into at length during the initial sympathy card.
• Don’t say things you don’t mean. If you say you want to take them to dinner, go for a walk, help with the kids, etc. , do it (or at least offer to do it on the phone/in person). When someone has recently lost someone, being flaky or unreliable can be very hurtful.