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How to write a letter of sympathy

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Sympathy letter pink flower
A tiny sprig of flowers tucked into a letter of sympathy or a follow-up note can bring a smile to sad eyes.
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Learn how to write a letter of sympathy with a few simple guidelines.

Good grief. Grief is good; it is a crucial step toward healing after the death of a loved one. But don't hike the death toll by killing with kindness the survivor—the wife, husband, etc. The survivors are the ones left in pain as the loss is recognized. Death comes to the young and the old and to families, coworkers and others from all walks of life. It's the living whose needs continue unabated.


One wants to reach out and give a hug to those left behind. One wants to comfort and console the person who must go on living life without their deceased loved one. The most common way of sharing the sorrow and extending your condolences is to write a letter of sympathy. But what do you say in such a time of stress?


Keep it light


When thinking about how to write a letter of sympathy, consider adopting a tone that is not too somber. Those wishing to comfort someone left behind frequently are at a loss for words. A telephone call often is too impersonal. A card sometimes expresses beautiful thoughts but frequently seems too bland. Most times, a hand-written letter of sympathy is the only way to go.


But how does one tactfully express condolences to a person—or a family—who has lost a loved one? They have been left missing a part of their lives. The person who has died will no longer accompany anyone to a ball game—or the mall to shop for shoes. How does one talk about the impact of a person who has gone missing—permanently? How does one put into words the sympathy felt for the grieving family, widow or friend?


Consider opening the correspondence with a simple statement. You are in my thoughts. I'm thinking of you. You've been on my mind. Then, perhaps initiate your message with a positive memory. I always enjoyed going to the theater with you and…the deceased. Remember how hard we laughed at the comedian on stage? The sooner you can bring a smile into the sadness, the better.



Avoid common clichés


No one left behind likes to dwell on the physical pain of a loved one's passing. Sometimes, diseases and accidents, too, assign their victims slow, painful deaths. Telling a survivor who is grieving that it was for the best that their loved one died is never appropriate. Making any reference about pain is something else to be avoided. To say that at least the person is no longer in pain only conjures up images of that still-too-real agony.


Assume that what you say in a letter is there forever. In many cases, the person left behind is reluctant to discard the letters and cards and newspaper obituaries received after their loved one's death. The mementos of the passing sometimes are kept for years—or forever.


Such memorabilia is the ballast that keeps in place a tie to the loved one. What you say in a letter of sympathy becomes a part of the deceased's legacy of emotion. And until some evolutionary rite of passage is experienced that enables the grieving to burn such mementos in the fireplace or release them into the waves of the ocean at high tide, your words may be there to stay.


Mean what you say


False promises hurt. When considering how to write a letter of sympathy, think about the future. Are you writing to a person who is a dear friend? Do you see the person on a frequent basis? Or is yours a more casual acquaintance? When you say in the letter that you are going to call the person every week—and then don't call—it causes hurt.


Refrain from telling a grieving person that you can be depended upon for anything at any time—unless you mean it. Think twice before putting that statement into a letter of sympathy. Can a person who is in tears, pacing the floor in the wee hours of the morning, call upon you to come over and provide a shoulder to cry upon? Can they borrow money? Can they live with you while the estate of the deceased is in turmoil?


Let your sense of compassion rule when you think about how to write a letter of sympathy. And perhaps consider writing a more lighthearted note—a follow-up letter—in a month or two. Ask the person to write back to you. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope. You will have given somebody who is sad yet another smile.


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