How to write a sympathy card

For those of you who don’t keep up with my Facebook and Twitter feed, this news may come as a shock. My father died very suddenly two weeks ago. In the huge rush of both ritualized and personal mourning, my family has read hundreds of sympathy cards. Some are great at providing comfort. Others make us cringe, even though we appreciate the sympathy. After all, intention matters most…right?

That said, some sympathy cards have provided an exceptional amount of support and comfort. Since writing these cards is such a difficult task for many, I thought we could have a discussion about helpful practices. Please feel free to add your own items to the list or provide feedback if some of these items haven’t worked for you.

By the way, these are Midwestern US observations. They may or may not be applicable for other regions, cultures, and countries. If you have different customs where you live, please add that to the discussion.

  1. When you send a sympathy card, include your full name. Especially if your name is common (Jennifer, Sara, etc.), it’s easy for your name to get lost in the shuffle. If you include a memorial or other gift, this applies all the more.
  2. In the card, explain how you knew the deceased. Again, if your name is Jennifer or Sara or John (and if you don’t sign your last name), it’s hard to keep everyone straight. Just a simple, “I worked with So-and-so at this company at this time,” or “So-and-so stopped by my store each morning on his way to work,” helps the family to identify you. The prayer service and funeral are a blur, as are visits from family and friends. I was lucky to remember my own name, let alone names of almost one thousand mourners. Even if you are sure the family will know who you are, explain anyway. It will give a piece of memory for the family to cherish.
  3. If you include a memorial or gift, write your mailing address. An easy way is to affix your return address sticker or business card to the inside of the sympathy card. Unless you write “no thank you necessary,” and perhaps even if you do, the family will want to send a thank you note. Including your address helps them at a time when everything has become more difficult.
  4. If you’re not sure what memorial or gift to send, consider enclosing a book of stamps. Obviously, if everyone does this the family will drown in stamps. 😀 But out of hundreds of cards, my family received stamps from only two people. It was a smart, thoughtful, and helpful idea. When we had to buy stamps for mailing thank you notes, it helped to have a few books of stamps right away.
  5. If you give a gift or memorial, write it in your card. This is not bragging! It helps the family in several ways. First, it’s a tangible expression of your respect for the deceased. Second, it helps the family with record-keeping. Third, it’s a reminder for the family when writing thank you notes. Even if it’s just a cheap dollar-store card, please do consider mailing or giving a card if you do give a gift or memorial. My family received far more memorials than cards, and we have been afraid of missing someone for thank you notes.
  6. Please don’t use a sympathy card as a place to give advice. Certain phrases I found least helpful include:
    1. “He will not be forgotten.” (I never considered he might be forgotten. Please don’t put the idea into my head. Now I’m worried he will be forgotten.
      BETTER: “He will always be remembered.”)
    2. “I know exactly what you’re going through.” (I understand the good intentions behind this sentiment, and I appreciate your effort to establish a connection. But unless you are me and had my dad, you don’t know what I’m going through. BETTER: “I’m sorry for your loss. Grief is different for everyone, but I hope you’ll let us support you.”)
    3. “Everything will be fine.” (Maybe. Right now, it feels like maybe not. Again, I appreciate the sentiment. But I just lost one of the most important people in my life, and I will never get him back. Ever. It’s okay to offer hope and reassurance, but try for something more original–and genuine–than tried-and-false cliches.
      BETTER: “Even if things seem overwhelming and difficult now, please know you are loved by many.”)
    4. “It was God’s will/God needed a new angel/This was God’s plan.” (Even if this is your sincere belief and you are sure this is how the grieving family feels, use this statement with the same level of caution as “Doesn’t that outfit make you look fat?” or “So why did you choose to have an abortion?” The family may or may not feel comforted by this statement. Even if they are normally, they may not be in a place to hear it right after a death.
      BETTER: (Assuming the family shares your religious faith) “May you find comfort knowing we are holding you up in prayer, sending you love and strength and light. When things seem unfair, we need each other the most.”)
  7. Please do use the sympathy card to share stories, memories, and favorite qualities about the deceased. You don’t have to make the person sound like a saint. In fact, portraying a larger-than-life person can be confusing and seem unreal. I treasure most the hilarious stories and anecdotes about Dad’s quirks, foibles, and funny situations. I never would have thought of this before reading cards for Dad, but condolence card stories can be humorous. Yes, really! We laughed out loud at a few stories in the cards, and it was a lovely, healing laughter. It hurt to think of Dad no longer here to produce funny memories, but it was such a blessing to laugh at a card after getting teary at the others.
  8. Even if you can only manage signing your name to the card, do it. You’re grieving, too. A card with signature only will keep longer than your constant but unwritten thoughts. It’s nice if you can write a bit more, but don’t feel obliged. Some of the greeting cards now are written so eloquently that your choice alone will convey your sympathies. Don’t worry about what to write–just do it. If you make a mistake, so what? I just lost my father. Do you think I’ll throw a tantrum because you phrased a sentence differently than I would?

What about you? What practices have you found helpful in writing and receiving sympathy cards?

 

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5 thoughts on “How to write a sympathy card

  1. pao says:

    Hugs, Ana ❤ I'm very sorry for your loss. I hope you're with company that will be able to support and comfort you.

    I'm not familiar with sympathy cards, as it's not a part of our customs where I'm from. We have a register where people write down their names and the amount they gave for the memorial. Since we know most of these people, we don't really need their address to send them thank you notes. We just hunt them down and hand them the thank you cards 🙂

    But back to the sympathy cards: wow, numbers 1, 3, 4 and 5 (especially 4) are really good pointers. I'm impressed with the ones who sent stamps! I know I tend to forgetto write my name and address when sending things, so those are great reminders.

    Like

  2. Sophie says:

    I am so sorry for the loss you are walking through.

    I would echo something you said. I make it clear that no matter what I’ve done (card, flowers, memorial) the family does not need to send a thank you. I feel strongly that this is their time to turn inward and concentrate on making it through each day, and they shouldn’t feel obligated to think of anyone else.

    One more suggestion that isn’t about the immediate period after a loss, but later. Remember to send a card at Christmas, on the birthday, on the anniversary of the death, just saying “I know this is a tough day for you and I’m thinking of you today.” The world moves on, but those days are so incredibly tough for the family.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Michelle says:

    Ana,
    My deepest condolences on your loss. I am close to my parents and in-laws and cannot imagine the pain you, and your family, are going through.

    I struggle with the “right words” to express my sympathy, because they tend to feel awkward. Unless I know the person who passed away, I express feelings of kinship with my friends who have lost a loved one.

    Sophie makes a great point about remembering birthdays, anniversaries and holidays, in addition to the period immediately after the person’s passing. When we lost several close family members, we were so busy with plans for memorial services and welcoming out of town guests, that the reality of the situation didn’t hit us until several weeks and months afterwards. Usually, in a quiet moment of reflection, or seeing something the deceased person liked.

    Even though it may feel odd or awkward, I think sending a note telling the family you are thinking of them during tough times is very comforting.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. abby says:

    I am so sorry to hear of the death of your dad…..the grieving process is a long one..be kind to yourself…..Love you post, it will help many people…the stamp idea is a great one!
    hugs abby

    Like

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