No one likes writing a sympathy card- we get it. You’re probably don’t love having to research this topic. It means someone has died. It means someone (or many people) you care about are suffering.
Add to that the anxiety people feel about saying, doing, and, in this instance, writing the “right” or “wrong” thing. They don’t teach us this in school. What do you say? How do you say it? What if your words are wrong?
We get it! But we must insist that you take a deep breath, it’s going to be okay.
Here’s the good news: the fact that you’re here researching this topic indicates you are a thoughtful and caring friend, which can go a long way. You may not have the perfect words, but being genuine goes a lot further than most people realize.
That being said, you probably aren’t reading this because you want to be reassured. You are probably reading this because you want to know what to write. So here are some simple DOs and DON’Ts for writing a sympathy card:
Pick a simple card: We know it can be tempting to go with an elaborate card with a long, printed message — Hallmark wrote all the words so you don’t have to, right!?! But a simple card with a longer, personal note will be a lot more meaningful. This will allow you to personalize your message and shows that you took the time to think of your friend.
Consider what you know about the recipient: We can’t tell you exactly which card to buy and exactly what to write because we don’t know your friend. But you do! When picking out a card, think about your friend and trust your judgment. For example, if they are not religious, a very religious card may not be the best fit (even if it is the one you like best).
Handwrite your message: This feels like it should go without saying, but in the technological age it may be tempting to consider other options. Don’t do it! It doesn’t matter if your handwriting is bad or if you’re out of stamps. This is one time it is important to sit down, grab your pen, and send it snail mail. Many people keep all the sympathy cards they receive and find comfort in them during their grief. Feel free to send an email, text, or facebook message in addition to a card, but don’t skip the card.
Talk about the person who died: This may sound like a given, but so often our sympathy card messages will focus exclusively on the pain the recipient is experiencing. A card remembering the special qualities of the person who died, or even a specific memory of that person, can go a long way in bringing comfort.
Offer something specific: Though grieving people often need help and support, it can be hard for them to know how to ask or what to ask for. Offer them some specific suggestions of how you could help (I would be happy to babysit Sally for a few hours any time; I would be happy to take care of mowing the lawn for you for the next few weeks).
Plan to send an anniversary card: When someone dies the sympathy cards roll in. But one year after the loss many grievers are faced with silence. Very few people remember the date or to check in with them. When you buy a sympathy card, buy a card for the one year anniversary of the loss at the same time. Put the date on your calendar and stick a note on the card, then tuck it away. Send it at the one year mark to let your friend know that you are still thinking of them, that you acknowledge their grief is still difficult, and that you are still there for support.
Rehash the tragedy: Again, this seems like a gimme, but when you don’t know what to say all sorts of inappropriate things can pour out of your mouth/pen. A sympathy card is not the place to rehash the specific circumstances of the loss.
Say “your loved one is in a better place”: They may believe this to be true. They may even say it, but you don’t want to be the one to say it first. Even if you know they believe in an afterlife, this does not ease the pain of the person being gone.
Offer something you can’t deliver on: We are all for people offering specific ways they can help but don’t offer something you can’t follow through on. It can be very hard for a griever to ask for support, so if you say you can make them dinner every Sunday this month you better be able to do it.
Say anything on the WYG ‘what not to say” list: Check out our full list of what not to say before you write your card.
Fall back on stock phrases from greeting cards. A personal message is crucial. A long message created by a Hallmark employee does not exactly convey your most sincere, heartfelt, or genuine sentiments. Create your own personal message, no matter how tough it is. A sincere personal message will go further than a Hallmark message every time.
That is it! That’s our wisdom. I’m sorry we can’t give you exact phrases to copy, but we will share a few examples below.
Sympathy Card Examples:
Offer condolences. Talk about the person who died. Offer something specific. Close.
I am so sorry for the loss of your mom. I can’t even imagine the pain of losing a parent. Though I didn’t know your mom well, she was always so kind and had such a wonderful sense of humor. I will miss talking to her in the yard about her beautiful garden – she was a pleasure in the neighborhood. Since I live right next door to your mom’s house, please let me know if I can be helpful by picking up the mail, mowing the lawn, or addressing any other maintenance needs. Please take care and don’t hesitate to call me if I can be of any support.
Concerned because you didn’t know the person who died and you need to send a sympathy card? This can be tough because you can’t talk about the person. Don’t worry. In this case, you can replace specific memories about the person who died with special qualities of the bereaved. Rely on what you know and have observed.
I am so sorry for the loss of your mom. I can’t even imagine the pain of losing a parent. I can tell from the way you talk about your mom how close you were. Your incredible support to her through her illness is a testament to your love for her. She raised an amazing daughter. I am sure you will have many arrangements to take care of in the next few weeks. I would be happy to watch the girls for a few hours if it would be helpful. You, Rick, and the girls will be in my thoughts.
Still worried about writing a sympathy card when the loss is someone you don’t know? Feel like it is impossible to make it personal and heartfelt? For some final inspiration, see the letter below written by Abraham Lincoln to mother who lost multiple sons during the civil war. He had never met her or any of her children.
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours very sincerely and respectfully,
Additional Guidance for Providing Grief Support:
Now that you know how to write a sympathy card, you might want to check out some of our other posts on supporting a friend or family member dealing with a loss. Here are a few links to get you started.
As you can see we have regular articles about how to support someone who has recently lost a loved one. Supporting someone after a death is an important but challenging role and we know sometimes you might need a little help. If you don’t want to miss any articles on this topic we recommend you subscribe to receive our posts straight to your e-mail inbox. We’re here for you!