How to Write a Sympathy Letter

Just what to say

Sometimes the best memorial gifts you can offer are your words of sympathy and support. Letter writing is becoming an increasingly uncommon mode of communication, so if you're uncomfortable with the process you might find it difficult to find the right words. It can be hard to know what to say when you're dealing with an unfamiliar and possibly uncomfortable situation.


Here are some basic things to keep in mind when you're writing a sympathy letter as a memorial gift:

  1. Be personal. Don't try to avoid mentioning the deceased's name or addressing the situation. You're offering sympathy and support, not trying to cheer someone up. You know the bereaved will be going through a difficult time, so avoiding the topic will appear insincere.

  2. Mention your own memories. If you knew the deceased, take this time to share some of your positive memories with the bereaved. The great thing about a letter is that it can be kept for later. After all the chaos of the funeral has calmed down, the bereaved will be faced with the ongoing challenge of adjusting to a loss. Your words just may help them through their loneliness by reminding them that they have support.

  3. Offer encouragement and condolences. Acknowledge the fact that this is a difficult time - avoiding this can make the bereaved feel like their feelings are being minimized. Make sure your statements are appropriate to the person you're addressing. If the person is not especially religious, then comments of a spiritual nature may ring hollow or even be offensive. Remember that everyone has a different reaction to death, so you have to pick your words carefully.

  4. Offer specific assistance. The time surrounding a death can be busy and chaotic. If you're able to offer assistance, make your suggestions specific. The bereaved are more apt to take advantage of the offer to baby-sit on Thursday than they are to reply to a vague suggestion that you're there if they need help.

What Not to Say

Most people don't have to deal with death on a regular basis, so they might mistakenly say something to the bereaved that comes across as offensive. If you're writing a letter as a memorial gift here are some tips on what to avoid:

  1. Avoid clichés and platitudes. You may truly believe that everything happens for a reason or that the deceased is in a better place now, but that doesn't help those left behind to deal with their grief. Particularly when the death has occurred recently, suggesting that death is inevitable or even positive can be incredibly hurtful.

  2. Don't offer advice. You're writing with sympathy and condolences, not trying to tell someone what to do or how to mourn. Everyone experiences death differently; the way you deal with things might not be the best way for someone else. If you've recently experienced something similar, avoid comparing the situation to what the bereaved is going through.

  3. Don't ramble. In this busy and stressful time, the bereaved will have a difficult time working through a long letter. Make the letter personal and offer empathy, but try to keep it under a page. Remember this is a memorial gift and you don't want to turn it into a burden.
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