Many people can feel unsure of what to do when someone they know loses a friend or family member.
They can feel so uncomfortable about the potential for doing or saying the wrong thing that they say nothing at all.
Writing a brief sympathy letter is a great way to let someone know that you are sorry for their loss and that you are thinking of them.
It’s a thoughtful thing to do even if you have communicated with them verbally or in another more informal way about their loss.
How do you write a sympathy letter?
1. Handwrite the letter.
2. Avoiding upsetting language.
3. Focus on the recipient and the deceased.
4. Use a specific memory.
5. Offer support and concrete help.
6. Stay concise.
7. Be sincere.
8. Have a thoughtful closing.
Handwrite the letter
This is not the time to send a text message or an email. Take the time to write out a letter.
You can purchase a card and write the letter inside the card, enclose the letter in the card, or just send the letter.
Some people hesitate to handwrite things if they are not used to it or they think their handwriting is poor and difficult to read.
If this is the case, just take your time and print carefully.
Avoid upsetting language or details
There are a few things you should avoid. You shouldn’t mention anything about how the person died since this might upset the recipient.
It is sufficient to saying something like “your loss.”
You should also avoid any comments such as “Things happen for a reason” or that suggest that what happened was for the best.
While you might mean well, these could be construed as insulting.
This is also not the place to be overly casual. An expression like “it is how it is“ might be true, but it is not very tactful in this situation.
In addition, avoid reference to anything religious unless you are certain that the person shares your faith.
While some people may take a reference to prayer in the spirit that you intend it, others might not appreciate such a reference if they are not themselves religious.
Some people worry that they will not sound sincere if they use stock phrases like “my condolences” or “I’m sorry for your loss.”
The fact is that it’s absolutely fine to use these or similar phrases.
The person you are writing to is not seeking originality or planning to critique you on your word choices. These types of phrases are generally received in the way that you mean them.
Focus on the person you are writing to and about
You should keep the focus on the person to whom you are writing the condolence letter and the person they have lost.
In addition to addressing the recipient by name in the opening, you should also specifically name the person who has died unless you did not know them.
It’s possible that you may find yourself writing a sympathy letter to someone who meant a lot to you as well, such as the parent of a close friend.
In this situation, it can be tempting to talk about how the person’s death has affected you.
While it is perfectly appropriate to talk about what you will miss about the person, remember that your focus should be on trying to offer sympathy and comfort to the recipient, not to talk about your own experience with loss.
Some of the alternatives to “I am reaching to you“ might be helpful in the first part of your letter, such as “I am writing to you” or “I wanted to let you know,” but make sure that the language that you use is warm and strikes a balance between overly formal and too casual.
Use a specific memory
If you knew the person who has died, your letter will be much more meaningful if you can name a specific memory about the person.
This can be just a line or two.
Try for something more concrete than just “Shirley always had a smile on her face” since this is a somewhat generic thing to say about a person.
If you really want to mention Shirley’s smile, a better comment might be, “Whenever I came over to your house, Shirley’s warm smile always made me feel so welcome and included.”
Alternately, you could think of something more specific to Shirley: “I always think about how much Shirley enjoyed gardening and how patient she was at trying to teach us kids about the natural world.”
If you don’t know the person who has died but there is something specific the recipient has shared with you about the person before, you could make a mention of this if it is appropriate.
Offer support and specific help if possible
In the wake of a death, there is often a lot for the family to do. Try to offer words of support or concrete offers of help.
Support can mean just writing “I am thinking of you.”
“Let me know if there is anything I can do to help” sounds nice, but unless you are very close, the person is unlikely to follow up with you.
A better approach would be to offer something specific: “Ted and I would be happy to take the kids for an afternoon or even overnight if you need to spend some time clearing out your mother’s house.”
If you do make a specific offer of help, make sure it is something you are willing and prepared to do.
Keep it concise
There is a saying attributed to various famous writers that goes something like this: “I’m sorry for writing you such a long letter, but there wasn’t time to write a short one.”
What this funny observation acknowledges is that it can be more time-consuming to say something in a few words compared to a lot.
Unlike with other types of social correspondence, a sympathy letter is one time when you might want to write a “first draft” and then review it to see if there are unnecessary parts you should take out.
Overall, you should aim for concision, but allow the letter to be the length that it needs to be. If you are particularly close to the person you’re writing to, you may have more to say.
On the other hand, if you don’t know the recipient and the deceased well or you simply don’t know what to say, it’s fine to keep the letter very short and simple.
For the most part, just the gesture of writing and sending the note, even if it’s only a few lines, will be seen as kind and thoughtful and will bring comfort to the recipient.
Write with sincerity
While a “first draft” is a good idea, the idea behind the subsequent draft is to get rid of any unnecessary wordiness or potentially upsetting language, not to try to make the letter sound more generic and less like you.
Write in a sincere way. If you are struggling with how to put your thoughts down on paper, think about what you would say to the person if you were talking to them.
Ultimately, one of the most important things about a sympathy letter is simply that you are writing it at all.
Be yourself, and your sincerity will come through.
Make the closing thoughtful
At the end of the letter, try to think of a thoughtful closing remark.
This will vary depending on how close you are to the person, but here are a few examples:
“I love you and I’m thinking about you all the time.”
“Again, my condolences for your loss.”
“We are all thinking of you and wishing you our best.”
Take a look at some different ways you can say “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Examples of sympathy letters
It can be helpful to put all of the above suggestions together and see what some sample letters would look like.
Example of a sympathy letter to a neighbor
Sometimes, you might need to write a sympathy letter to someone that you know even if you don’t know the person who has died.
Note how the letter writer manages to make some specific comments about the person anyway.
I’m so sorry to hear about the loss of your mother.
Although I never met her, I always remember your stories about her and how much you enjoyed planning the cruise that the two of you would take each year. I know that you were very close and that her loss must be so difficult for you. I’m sure she loved being able to spend so much quality time with you these past few years.
Please let Andre and me know if you need help with the kids or anything else. We can drop by next week and bring you all some lasagna if you’d like.
We are all thinking of you, and we’re here for you if you need us.
Example of a sympathy letter about someone you were close to
The letter below is written to the spouse of a friend who has died:
I am so saddened about Catherine. We have both lost one of the kindest, brightest people I have ever known.
I remember the first time Catherine told me about meeting you. She said that her cousin had introduced her to a guy that she thought was too good to be true! We had a running joke for years that she was going to discover a deep dark secret about you. Of course, you made her so very happy, and you were such a wonderful support to her as she built her career and then throughout her illness.
I have old photos of her I’d love to share with you when you are ready to look at them. I could drop by any time next week or some time after that if you aren’t up for it yet.
Catherine would have also wanted me to make sure you know that you can call me anytime for anything that you need.
My thoughts are with you at this heartbreaking time.
Example of a sympathy letter to and about someone you didn’t know well
There may also be a situation in which you have a neighbor, a coworker or even a distant family member who loses someone and you didn’t know either of them well.
You can still write them a sympathy letter if it’s a situation in which you feel you should.
In the example below, the person is writing to an elderly neighbor that they didn’t know well but to whom they still want to offer sympathy and help.
Dear Mrs. Martinez,
I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your husband. After decades of marriage, this must be very difficult for you.
I used to always see the two of you heading out to run errands or do yard work together, and you always looked so happy!
I’m including my phone number below. Please let me know if you need any help with the yard or if you’d like me to run any errands for you. I usually stop off at the store on my way home from work a few times a week, so it’s no problem to pick up something if you need it.
My condolences on your loss, and please don’t hesitate to contact me. My thoughts are with you.
All the best,
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.