The Art of Letter Writing: The Sympathy Note

by Brett & Kate McKay on September 18, 2009 · 22 comments

in A Man's Life, On Etiquette

mailboxSource: Life

Of all the letters you will write during your life, the sympathy note is arguably the hardest to pen. It can be very difficult to find the right words, or any words really, to say. We worry about saying the wrong thing , or we feel awkward talking about such a serious matter. It’s thus often tempting not to say anything at all. We tell ourselves that the person knows we love and support them anyway.

And they probably do. But everyone would rather hear it from you themselves. They want a tangible reminder that you are thinking about them during their hard time. Your words can bring a brief, but very real moment of comfort.

Awhile ago, Kate and I lost our baby when Kate was 6 months pregnant. Both of us were absolutely devastated. I can still tell you the names of each and every person who sent us a sympathy note. The cards brought moments of peace during that very dark time. I cherish the kindness the people who took the time to write showed us.

So the first rule about sympathy notes is to always write one. Whether you live close to the person or far away, whether you knew the person they lost well or not at all, take the time to pen them a note. It’s actually preferable to share your sympathies in a letter as opposed to bringing it up to the person the next time you see them. Sharing your sympathies in public can bring up all of the grieving person’s feelings at a time when they’d rather remain composed. A sympathy note can be read over and experienced in the privacy of one’s home.

How to Write a Sympathy Note

Use nice stationery. Casual notes can be written on whatever is handy. But the sympathy note requires something nicer. Death is the gravest of matters and your medium should reflect your respect for the weight of the situation.

Keep it short and simple. A lot of men can’t get started writing because they think they have to come up with something deep and philosophical about death, dying, and hope. While the bad news is that there’s nothing you can write to take away a person’s pain, the good news is that the grieving friend knows this just as well as you do. They’re not expecting something profound. They just want to know that you’re thinking of them and feeling for them.

Start off by expressing your sadness at hearing about the death. “I was so sorry to hear about the death of your father.”

Share a memory. There’s not much you can do to alleviate someone’s grief, but sharing a memory of the deceased person comes close. It gives the person a few moments to laugh and remember. And it warms their heart to know that others have special memories of their loved one that they carry with them. Share some of the special qualities and favorite memories about the deceased.

If you didn’t know the person your friend lost, then skip this step. If your friend lost a baby, tell them that you understand that even though your friend never got to meet their child, they’re grieving over the loss of the future they’ve been dreaming about with him or her.

Don’t try to explain the loss. If you’re a religious person, don’t offer platitudes like “This is God’s plan,” or “This is God’s will.” This might be something the person comes to believe in the future, but in the midst of their grief, the idea of God snatching their loved one from the earth is liable to piss them off. I knew a guy who lost his wife in a car accident, leaving him to raise his 5 young children alone. He said to me, “If I hear one more person say, ‘God needed her more in heaven,’ I’m going to knock them out.”

Don’t compare your loss with theirs. This is especially true if you haven’t experienced the exact same thing. If their child has died, don’t tell them how you know what they’re going through because your dog just expired last week. You’ll come off as calluous and tick them off. If you have experienced a similar loss, a reference to your ability to truly sympathize is appropriate. But don’t go on and on about how you felt during that time; the focus should remain on the other person.

Show your solidarity. Let them know that you’re thinking and praying for them. If you or your friend or family member is not religious and a reference to prayer would not be appropriate, simply say, “My heart and thoughts go out to you during this difficult time.”

Close by offering your help. Let the person know that if there is anything you can do for them or if they ever want to talk or hang out, to please let you know.

Example:

Dear Leo-

I was so sorry to hear about the death of your mother, Nancy. Your mom was always so full of life and so fun to be around. I remember when we would come home after school, she’d always be baking cookies for us, listening to her favorite Prince album and getting down in the kitchen. You couldn’t help but be happy when you were around her. She was like a second mom to me, and I loved stopping over and telling her about what was going on with my life. She always gave me the best advice, and I’ll really miss our talks.

I know how devastating it is to lose your mom. When my mom died last year, it was incredibly traumatic. I know that it seems impossible right now, but things will get better. You’ll feel a little better with each passing week. Just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I am thinking and praying for you every day. If you ever want to talk or grab a beer, don’t hesitate to let me know.

With Deepest Sympathy,

Rob

A final note: When Kate and I lost our baby, one of my friends gave up a sympathy card that included a gift card to a nice restaurant. When we were feeling better, this allowed us to get out and spend some time together. It was such an incredibly thoughtful gesture, and I would really recommend it to others in certain circumstances.

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Sayyad September 18, 2009 at 3:57 pm

Hello.

I’m impressed by how you get these vintage/retro looking photographs on your blog. Apart from Life, do you use any other sources?

Thanks.

2 Brett McKay September 18, 2009 at 3:59 pm

@Sayyad-

We also use Flickr a lot. Just type in “Vintage+whatever you are looking for.”

3 Lyle McDonald September 18, 2009 at 10:21 pm

Brett-

So sorry to hear about your loss. I know that it was and still is a challenging thing to deal with, but the AoM community is glad that you mentioned this so that we can support you. Thanks so much for all you do for the site and for the betterment of society!-

Lyle

4 dan September 19, 2009 at 10:32 am

Great article. Sympathy letters are easily some of the hardest letters to write. Thanks for the excellent advice on how to write them well.

5 Shawn September 19, 2009 at 1:05 pm

Brett,

I am sorry to hear of your loss, please pass along my condolances to your wife. Thank-you so much for this post, I have struggled with writing sympathy letters for years, and your thoughts and insights have given me many ideas.

Shawn

6 Bob Iger September 19, 2009 at 6:23 pm

I’ve written sympathy notes in the past to people who needed it, so I’m not stranger to this concept. It’s nice to see that the idea is not considered outdated yet.

Also, Brett, I never realized you and your wife Kate had to cope with this loss. If you need a talk, there’s a whole community to give you guidance when needed.

7 Pat McNally September 19, 2009 at 9:09 pm

Dear McCays,
I am a funeral director and the editor of The Daily Undertaker blog, and this is some of the best advice I’ve read. I’ve shared your list and placed a link to the story on my site.
Keep up the good work.

8 Will September 19, 2009 at 10:53 pm

Yes, Brett, I had no idea — and now that I’m a father, I can imagine (but only imagine, fortunately) how it must have stopped your world dead. I’m so sorry to hear that.

I’ve never written a sympathy note (before), but I’ll take this to heart.

9 JonathanL September 19, 2009 at 10:55 pm

Question – when most people offer to keep someone in their prayers, i find myself, an agnostic, with few options. i can say they’re in my thoughts, but it seems to pale compared to someone who is praying to their God for someone else. it seems sincerity is a hallmark of the sympathy card, and i can’t tell someone who knows i’m agnostic that i will pray for them. thoughts?

10 Peter O'Reilly September 20, 2009 at 12:36 am

Wow. This was a great article. Its always difficult to know what to say to someone who is grieving and this really helps a lot.

11 Justin September 20, 2009 at 2:02 pm

Class!

12 Beowulf87 September 20, 2009 at 4:37 pm

I am so sorry about your baby. Bravo to you for getting through it like a man.

Spencer

13 Ashley Camm September 22, 2009 at 6:02 pm

Brett,

We too lost a child a few years ago. He would have been 18 this year. It’s still hard, but some of the sympathy cards we recieved we will display forever, because of the thought and love people put into them. We miss him every day, but a well written sympathy card can mean the world to you when you’re feeling so raw.

This article covers an important and neglected area of the human drama, thanks.

AC

14 Mr. Pickwick September 28, 2009 at 1:28 am

Nothing expresses emotions more sincerely then with the simplicity of a pen and a wee piece of paper.

15 gift certificate guy September 29, 2009 at 4:21 pm

this is amazing advice, ive had stuff like this happen yet… ive no idea what to say or do i wish i would have come across this sooner

16 Diane October 8, 2009 at 2:29 pm

To JonathanL,
A hallmark of a sympathy note is to let someone know you are thinking of them in their time of sadness. Frankly, someone suffering a severe loss doesn’t care what your beliefs are. Speak of the truth. Tell them that you have wonderful memories of their loved one, or that you will carry the memory of their loved one in your heart forever. These are the first two examples that come to mind. It’s not about your religious beliefs or lack thereof, it’s about showing that you care.
Also – don’t buy a pre-printed card – write a letter!

17 Nathan November 30, 2009 at 10:13 pm

Honestly I have never had to write a sympathy letter yet, but when writing any letter I often refer to Abraham Lincoln for a little inspiration. He had an amazing way with words and used the English language beautifully.

18 Michael January 10, 2010 at 11:55 pm

Could I just say thank you to all of you at AoM? You’ve done a significant job in changing my life, and growing up without a father figure, you’ve all certainly done a marvelous job teaching me the ins and outs of manhood.

Thank you, and I respect this work so very much. It’s always been my dream to help people just like you all do. That you’ve lost your own flesh and blood and can still continue living so optimistically and selflessly really touches me in so many ways. I’ve been blessed to stroll upon these pages of manliness.

19 Michael May 22, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Any advice?

This morning we found out that a family we know in our small town lost their 8th grade son to suicide. We know this family very well, our 12 yr old son and their 12 yr old daughter are “dating”. I have coached their 8 yr old daughter in youth sports. We did not know the son as well and didn’t necessarily call the family “close friends”. But, liked I said know them very well. At a total loss in finding the most appropriate words.

BTW telling your 13, 12 and 8 year old sons about someone we know commiting suicide is extremely difficult. Thanks

20 Edward January 31, 2013 at 12:16 pm

The advice was excellent, consise, and made a hard job of writing a sympathy card to a good friend of our family. Thanks!

21 Tony Brown February 27, 2014 at 5:19 am

Do you have any advice on writing a letter of sympathy to the family of one who is dying?

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