Guidelines for Writing Letters of Condolence
A thoughtful letter of condolence is both a tribute to the deceased and a source of comfort and courage to the living. The guidelines that follow are not presented as a set of rigid rules; rather, they are offered as suggestions for transforming your feelings, concerns, sympathy, and love into meaningful written communication. Many people have told us that they reread letters of condolence again and again, days, months, and even years after the loss. Some even pass these letters down through the family for generations. A sensitive letter of condolence is not only an enduring consolation but it is an enduring conversation.
Unfortunately, many people miss the essence of good letter writing when they sit down to begin. They find it difficult to express themselves in a simple, natural way; instead, they think they must write "better" than they speak. In an effort to be literary and correct they sound affected and lose the quality of personal sincerity. Generally, with the exception of a business letter of condolence, writers should make every effort to write as if they were speaking with the bereaved. A good letter is like a visit on paper. Use your usual vocabulary and phrasing. Ideally, the person who receives your letter should almost be able to see and hear you while reading it.
After studying thousands of condolence letters and analyzing their structure, we have identified seven key components.
While many beautiful and profound letters of condolence do not contain all seven components, or use them in a different sequence, understanding these components provides the writer with a practical, simple, and clear outline. The order of the components is not carved in stone; however, the order presented here is that most frequently noted. This set of seven guidelines applies specifically to instances when you knew the deceased. An example is presented for those situations where you know only the bereaved and not the person who died.
Letters: The Seven Components
1. Acknowledge the loss. If you have been informed of the death by a source other than the person to whom you are writing, note how you came to learn of the news. Here it is perfectly appropriate to relate one's shock and dismay at hearing about the loss. This acknowledgment immediately sets clear the purpose and tone of the letter. No matter what the circumstance, it is always advisable in your letter to mention the deceased by name.
2. Express your sympathy. Express your sorrow sincerely. In sending your words of sympathy, you let the grieving persons know that you care and that, in some way, you relate to the anguish of their loss. Be honest; don't hesitate to use the word death or note the actual cause of death, even suicide. If you knew the person who died, which of course is not always the case, by sharing your own sadness you support the bereaved and remind them that they are not completely alone in their suffering.
3. Note special qualities of the deceased. Take a moment to acknowledge those characteristics you cherished most about the deceased. These may be specific attributes such as a keen wit, generous nature, or love of sports. They may be personality characteristics, for example, courage, leadership, or decisiveness. They may be ways in which the individual related to the world, as through religious devotion or community service. When you recount such qualities, you help remind the bereaved that others appreciated their loved one. If you didn't know the deceased personally, you may wish to recount qualities you have heard about.
4. Recount a memory about the deceased. Early in bereavement, memories of the deceased are often temporarily dimmed. This can be frightening for those in grief. Relate a brief, memorable anecdote or two. In the recounting, try to capture what it was about the deceased that evoked your appreciation, affection, or respect. You may wish to say a few words~ about how he or she touched and influenced your life. And don't avoid humorous incidents; they can be most appropriate and very gratefully received. Laughter is a great healer.
5. Note special qualities of the bereaved. The loss of a loved one can be so overwhelming that strong feelings of inadequacy surface, and the bereaved may feel shaky about even their most basic abilities. They typically experience at least a transitory impairment in their usual capacity for self-appreciation and self-love. This is a time when even the most courageous individuals will appreciate your reminding them of their personal strengths, especially those qualities that will help them through this period. These may be traits that you know served them through adversity in the past such as resilience, patience, competence, religious devotion, optimism, or trusting nature. This can be beautifully amplified if you recall a loving remark about the survivor that was once made by the deceased.
6. Offer assistance. Many, but not all, sympathy letters include an offer to help. If you sincerely wish to offer your assistance, do so, but if you choose not to, you can still write a beautiful condolence letter. If you decide to offer help keep in mind that the standard, "Let me know if there is anything I can do," may put a burden on the grieving individual to ask you for assistance. Although a general offer to help is not out of line, a more sensitive approach reflecting your sincere desire to be of help is to make a specific offer (doing the grocery shopping, running errands, answering the phone, taking care of the children, helping with correspondence). Those in the numbness of early grief can often scarcely hear the well meant, "Is there anything I can do?" let alone summon up a vision of what actually needs to be done. Your caring sentiment and genuine offer to help may be more readily accepted if you are willing to take the initiative. Once having made an offer, be sure to follow through on your promise.
7. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase. The closing in a letter of condolence can be particularly significant. Let your concluding words reflect the truth of your feelings. Is it "love," "fondly," "yours truly," "sincerely," or would you prefer to close with a phrase or sentence that reiterates your sympathy? For example: My affectionate respects to you and yours. Our love is with you always. You are in my thoughts and prayers. You know you have my deepest sympathy and my love and. friendship always. My heart and my tears are with you. We share in your grief and send you our love. We offer our affectionate sympathy and many beautiful memories. My thoughts are with you now, and I send you my deepest sympathy. We all join in sending you our heartfelt love.
When You Knew the Deceased
The following letter illustrates the seven components just discussed. In this case, the writer knows both the bereaved and the deceased.
A Complete Letter of Condolence, Example 1Dear Keith,
1. Acknowledge the loss. My heart ached when Tim called this morning and I heard the news of Ruth's death. Though not unexpected, the final word was still felt as a blow.
2. Express your sympathy. Words seem so inadequate, but with this letter come my heart filled with love and sympathy on the loss of your beloved wife. I loved her too.
3. Note special qualities of the deceased. Ruth was a vibrant, talented, caring woman and dearly loved by everyone whose life she touched. But for me, she was even more. She was a rare and cherished friend. Through our friendship, my vision of the beauty and possibilities of life grew.
4. Recount a memory about the deceased. As I write, flooded with precious memories, I am recalling the day when Ruth and I were driving to the coast for what we thought would be a lazy afternoon of beach combing. Instead, we had a flat tire. You've never seen a pair of more fumble-fingered, grease-covered, laughing clowns than we were that day, but we did it! And we made it to the beach just in time for a glorious sunset.
5. Note special qualities of the bereaved. I know you will miss her deeply, but I also know that you recognize the blessings of the beautiful years you shared. You were always a source of strength and courage to Ruth. I recall her once saying that your love of life and enduring optimism brought her closer to God. I trust these same qualities will help support and guide you during this oh-so-difficult time.
6. Offer assistance. You know you have my sympathy and my friendship, and I would be grateful if you would turn to me for any help I might give. I'll call this weekend to see if there's anything I can do.
7. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase. My prayers and thoughts are with you.
When You Didn't Know the Person Who Died
Of course, the form of your letter will in large part be governed by whether you knew the deceased. Particularly as we get older and our circle of social and professional acquaintances widens, occasions arise when we are moved to write a letter about the loss of someone we never knew. For example, you may wish to write to a business associate following the"' death of one of his or her parents whom you never met. In addition, two less frequent circumstances arise (1) if you knew the deceased but never met the person to whom you are writing, and (2) if you have met neither the bereaved nor the deceased, as in a letter concerning the death of a famous person. Any letter may be written by adapting these guidelines.
A Complete Letter of Condolence, Example 2Dear Ellen,
1. Acknowledge the loss. This morning Mr. Moore told us the sad news of your father's sudden death.
2. Express your sympathy. Let me first extend my heartfelt sympathy to you and your family. The loss must touch you very deeply as you face these first numbing days of grief.
3. Note special qualities of the deceased.
4. Recount a memory about the deceased. (Note: These two components may not apply if you never met the deceased. However, it can be quite meaningful to the bereaved if you are able to recall any special qualities or memories they may have shared with you in the past about their loved one.)
Though I never met your Dad, I remember how touched I was when you described the scene as he recited a poem he'd composed for your mother at their fiftieth wedding anniversary celebration last year. His tenderness and humor were both captured in that story, as was your obvious love for him.
5. Note special qualities of the bereaved. While our relationship has been largely in the office, I have seen you handle challenging situations for the firm time and again. During this difficult period, I know you will draw on these same deep personal resources so many of us have come to respect and admire.
6. Offer assistance. During your absence, Dan and I will cover your accounts-maybe not with your finesse, but with as much savvy as we can muster. We've had a terrific mentor.
7. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase. Keep in mind that this office is filled with people who care about you and are thinking about you in your sorrow.
Three Additional Options
Three additional components may be incorporated in a letter of condolence. These options are found frequently in the letters we have reviewed, but not as often as the seven basic components. Although they are seen less often, they have the potential to add rich, inspirational, and comforting dimensions to a letter of condolence.
1. Share your philosophy of life or provide a religious commentary.
Death almost always brings in its wake a renewed awareness and reawakening of our spiritual beliefs. If you choose to use references to religion in your letter of condolence, be sensitive to the religious orientation of the bereaved. It would be most unusual, however, to offend anyone by offering your prayers as a personal act of love. Discrepancies of religious belief matter little if your effort to console is an authentic one and your espousal of beliefs is not strongly contrary to those of the bereaved.
Obviously you should not use the occasion to try to convert the bereaved to a particular point of view, but feel free to express yourself in religious terms if these are the words that come to you naturally. All responses to the loss of a loved one raise the spiritual challenge of forgiving and accepting in a world that may not have met one's hopes and expectations.
2. Share your own grief experiences, but don't compare them with those of the bereaved.If you have suffered the loss of a loved one, your insights may be very helpful to the bereaved. In sharing your bereavement remember that each loss is unique. Share the experience, but don't weigh or compare it with theirs. In our talks with bereaved persons, the well-intended phrase that most often angers is "I know (understand) exactly how you feel." The bereaved is not interested in a discourse on your suffering. They are likely, however, to be grateful for your intimate understanding of the pain of loss and may find inspiration in seeing how you have coped. For example, "When Bobby died, for months I thought my life was over. Then one morning, I saw the sun streaming through the kitchen window and I was, again, glad to be alive."
3. Include a quotation, reading, or historic letter.
On occasion the words of another may touch a sentiment that strikes a chord in your heart. By all means, use them! The purpose in writing a letter of condolence is to convey 1 your sympathy as authentically and caringly as possible. If a ' poet's words echo your own message, it is a gift.
It may seem surprising, but those in grief have also told us how inspiring and healing historic letters can be. Many of these historic letters nourish the spirit and have the potential to create a deeper realization of the universal nature of grief. Some of these letters touch our souls, lifting us out of unawareness and into awareness, out of pain and into gratitude. Although the letters have been written in the distant past, their expressions of sympathy may capture what you wish to convey.
Sympathy Notes: The Four Components
On occasion, you may wish to express your sympathy in a short note rather than a letter. Or, you may wish to write a brief personal note on a commercial condolence card. We suggest that you consider including the following four of the seven basic components described previously.
A Sympathy Note: Example
l. Acknowledge the loss. Our family was deeply saddened today when we heard from Bill that you had lost your mother.
2. Express your sympathy. We are all thinking of you and send our heartfelt sympathy.
3. Note special qualities of the deceased or the bereaved, or recount a memory about the deceased. In the years we lived next door, your mother was the most wonderful neighbor! She was always warm, gracious, and ready to lend a hand. We feel fortunate to have known her.
4. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase. With affection and deepest condolences.
If You're Having Difficulty Writing
When you're writing a letter of condolence or sympathy note, keep thinking of what you want to say, not the "proper" way to say it. Often, words don't flow easily. Too many letter-writing guides insist on form and style at the expense of the writer's personality. Remember that the most important thing is the sentiment. Ideally, a letter of condolence should be written as if you were speaking with the bereaved. If you keep focusing on what and how you are feeling, the words will usually take care of themselves. The first way of saying it that comes to your mind is often the best. It's your way; it expresses your personality.
We have given the following suggestion to many who wished to convey their sympathy, but experienced difficulty in finding the words. Before beginning, close your eyes and visualize the person to whom you are writing. Don't try to structure the image; instead, let it come forth naturally. Notice what feelings, thoughts, and memories emerge. Imagine what you would do or say if you were with the person at that moment. Open your eyes and quickly jot down any words or phrases that came to you during the visualization. Don't organize or edit at this time; let your thoughts flow even if they don't immediately make sense to you.
For example, if in your visualization you found yourself speechless, but reached out and took the bereaved's hand or offered a hug, then in your letter talk about your feeling to reach out your hand or hold the bereaved in your arms. If in your imagination you heard yourself say, "I never realized how much I loved Ben's laughter; we could use a little bit of that right about now," say it!
Now we suggest that you repeat the process in a slightly different way. This time, visualize the person who has died. Again, notice what feelings, thoughts, and memories emerge.
If you have difficulty, imagine a time when you were actually with that person. The image that comes will help stimulate your feelings. Open your eyes and write them down.
You can repeat either process a number of times before you write the actual letter. Be aware that these visualizations may stimulate your own feelings of sadness. If this occurs, allow it. Out of these feelings come words from the heart.Adapted from: The Art of Condolence by L.M. Zunin and H.S. Zunin