When someone you care about loses a loved one, it’s natural to want to express your support and sympathy. We know that sending a card with a personal note is a thoughtful way to let someone know you are thinking about them, but when it comes to sensitive subjects like death and grief, we often find ourselves at a loss for what to say. It can feel intimidating to write a sympathy card message that feels personal and sincere.
“Because grief is complicated and can be unpredictable, many of us unconsciously try to avoid and silence uncomfortable emotions,” said therapist Danielle Nelson, MSW, LCSW. “There's no right or wrong way to mourn — grief looks different on everyone. As a result, it can feel overwhelming to know where to start or what to say when offering your sympathy.”
Some people struggle with the fear of saying the wrong thing, while others may worry that their message won’t be comforting enough. Death itself is often a taboo subject that people avoid discussing. (Interestingly, our recent survey shows that attitudes about that are changing in light of the recent COVID-19 pandemic, with more than half of respondents saying that they are thinking more about their mortality.)
Keep reading to learn 10 tips for what to keep in mind when sending condolence messages, and some basic ideas for things to put in a sympathy card.
When someone loses a loved one
1. A short message is fine
When in doubt about what to say, keep it short. Select a card that comes with sympathy card verbiage that resonates with you, then include a brief personal message. A short but heartfelt grief card message will mean a lot to the recipient. Besides, a person who just lost someone may not be in the right state of mind to read and process long letters.
2. It doesn’t have to be fancy
If you aren’t a poet or creative writer, that’s ok. This isn’t the time to send a flowery essay — a clear and concise message of sympathy and support is quite enough.
3. There’s no perfect thing to say
As much as we wish we could conjure the magic phrase to help our loved ones heal faster, there’s nothing you can say that will make everything ok, so don’t waste time trying to write the “perfect” sentence.
4. Respect the nature of your relationship
The level of personalization in your sympathy card should match how well you know the person to whom you’re sending it. It’s alright to keep it brief and generic if you don’t know this person well. If you don’t know a person’s religious or spiritual beliefs, keep it secular so you don’t offend or overstep.
5. Avoid saying “at least” or “be thankful”
“Oftentimes we're not even aware we're doing it, but using sentences that begin with ‘at least’ or ‘be thankful’ dismisses the feelings of the bereaved,” said Danielle. “You may feel like you're keeping it positive or looking on the bright side, but what they may hear or feel is a dismissal of their emotions, and sitting with those emotions is vital in moving through the bereavement process.”
6. Share your affection for the deceased
Most grieving people take comfort in the fact that their loved one was also loved by others. Keep it short, but share a moment or characteristic that you cherished about the deceased.
7. Don’t over-identify
You may have also experienced loss, but grief is personal. Tell your loved one that you empathize, but don’t offer advice or say anything that minimizes their own experience. Keep it about them and their feelings only.
8. Offer to help
If you are able, offer to help with specific tasks such as cooking, dog walking, babysitting, running errands, or anything you can do that will ease their burdens while grieving. Be sure to follow up.
9. Reach out again
At some point, the initial outpouring of condolences stops. This can leave a bereaved person feeling as if everyone else has moved on while they are still grieving, which can lead to loneliness. Let them know they aren’t alone by regularly checking in.
10. Don’t forget about pets
Losing a cherished pet is its own kind of heartbreak, and it’s perfectly acceptable to send a condolence card for the loss of a furry friend. (Read this article for information on spreading a pet’s ashes in a memorial forest.)
Ideas to help you write a sympathy card
Things to put in a sympathy card
When it comes to writing your card, you don’t need to be creative. That being said, if you are looking for something more unique to say instead of sorry for your loss, here are some comforting words to use in a sympathy card.
- Thinking of you in this difficult time.
- We’ll miss your ____ very much. Sending you lots of love during this difficult time.
- I’m here when you want to talk. If you don’t want to talk, I’m still here.
- I’m keeping you and your family in my thoughts.
- We’re here to support you however you need.
- We love you and you are not alone.
- May you find comfort in ___’s memory.
- Words fail in times like these. Please know I’m thinking of you and sending my love.
- I’m saddened to hear about your loss and sending you loving thoughts.
- Your ____ was a wonderful person, and we’ll all miss him/her/them very much.
- I wish I had the right words to properly express my sympathies. Please know I’m thinking of you.
- ____ touched so many lives and her/his/their loss will be felt deeply by many.
- I’m so lucky I got to know ___. You both mean so much to me, and I’m here for you.
- I have many fond memories of ____. I’ll carry these memories with me always, and I’m thinking of you in this difficult time.
What is the etiquette for a sympathy card?
The best time to send a sympathy card is as close to when you’ve learned about someone’s passing as possible. Here are four steps to follow sympathy card etiquette:
- Use stationary or a card. It’s appropriate to send either a store-bought or homemade card.
- Send it as soon as possible.
- Make sure to sign both your first and last name, as they may receive other cards from people with the same first name as you.
- If you knew the deceased but not the recipient, be sure to explain the relationship, such as “I worked with your mom”, or “I went to college with your brother”, etc.
How to end a sympathy card
Keep it short and end by reiterating your sympathy and support. Try phrases like these, following by your signature:
- With sympathy
- Thinking of you
- With love
- With loving thoughts
- Sending my deepest condolences
What not to write in a sympathy card
Your sympathy card should acknowledge the recipient's loss. It’s important not to diminish that loss or their feelings about it. These are some phrases you should avoid in a sympathy card:
- Be thankful for the time you had together. This can come across as telling the bereaved what they should feel.
- I know how you feel. While you may have experienced your own loss, everyone experiences the death of a loved one differently.
- It happened for a reason. Loss often feels senseless to the people who are experiencing it intimately.
- You will find peace. Avoid rushing the grieving process for someone else.
- What a terrible loss. Reference the positive aspects of the deceased person that you remember rather than highlighting the difficulty of the loss.
- They are in a better place. In the immediate stages of grief, people need acknowledgment of their loss rather than words that make it seem better than it feels.
If the time comes and you still find yourself struggling with what to put in a sympathy card, remember this advice from Danielle. “A good rule of thumb when reaching out to the bereaved is to use simple and straightforward language,” she said. “Saying ‘I'm here for you and I want to listen when you're ready’ addresses the immediate heartache, and confirms your desire to be there once the cards and the calls stop coming.”
If you’re starting end-of-life planning or looking for a final resting place for a loved one, schedule a free online forest tour with one of our advisors to learn about your options.