Top Five Things to Know Before You Write a Sympathy Card
By Linda Donovan, Grief Support Volunteer, Hospice of Santa Cruz County

When someone you know dies, you may wonder about how to best express your feelings to the family. Sometimes it can be challenging trying to convey your concern at such a difficult time for the family. Here are some guidelines to help you write in a way that will make a difference.

1. Share something special about the person that died. For example, if the person was your school teacher, recall a memorable classroom experience and tell why that person had such an impact on you. People are often comforted by kind words about their loved ones.

2. Don’t make statements that the person is better off now because he or she is no longer suffering. Avoid clichés like “he’s gone to a much better place,” “it’s good that he died quickly and didn’t have to suffer,” or “she was so sick that at least now she is no longer feeling any pain.” Being without their loved one may be more difficult than watching him or her decline. People react differently to death based on their experience and beliefs, so be careful not to make assumptions about whether someone is better off by no longer being alive.

3. Say that you are available for help and support and let the family know when and how you can help. Just after someone dies, the family members often receive a tremendous outpouring of sympathy, visitors, and assistance. But weeks later, they may be left all alone to deal with their loss. Knowing that they can call you if they need someone to walk their dog, pick up their kids after school, to share a meal, or just go out for a cup of coffee can make a real difference. It’s one thing to express platitudes of sorrow, but quite another to actually do something to help.

4. Keep your message concise. It may be too emotionally draining to read a long, detailed note. In fact, this person may receive so many cards that it’s overwhelming to read them all. What’s most important is that you contacted the grieving person and expressed your sympathy. Keep your note short and thoughtful.

5. Be sincere. Say what you mean. Speak honestly about the person that died and convey how lucky you were to have known that person. You don’t need to do this in great detail — just a sentence or two is fine. There’s a fine line between discussing the loss and dragging it out to the point that the reader feels even sadder after reading the letter.

Writing a sympathy card can be a challenging experience because the act of communicating this message can remind you of the loss. These recommendations may help to make a difficult process easier for you and more comforting for the person who receives your card.