An Excellent and Manly Example of a Sympathy Note

by Brett & Kate McKay on December 16, 2010 · 28 comments

in Blog

Awhile back, we published an article on how to write a sympathy note. Penning this type of correspondence is a difficult task. While I think we offered a good guide, it’s one of those things that’s easiest to understand when you see a real example. So I when I came across the following letter in the book War Letters, I knew I had to pass it along. It’s truly an example of a pitch perfect sympathy note.

The letter was written by Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Many know him as an actor, but he was also a highly decorated Naval officer. His awards span the globe: the United States Navy’s Legion of Merit with bronze V (for valor), the Italian War Cross for Military Valor, the French Légion d’honneur and the Croix de guerre, and the British Distinguished Service Cross.

When his dear friend, John Kremer, was killed when a kamikaze plane crashed into the USS Orestes during WWII, Fairbanks wrote the following note to Kremer’s mother.

Jan 9th

Dear Mrs. Kremer-

Word has just reached me about John.
No words of mine will supply the comfort and the strength which these days require. However, I could not let the day pass without letting you know how very deeply I am feeling the effects of this crushing news.
To say that I was fond of John would merely be the echo of any and all who ever knew him. He was a man whose courage I admired, whose wisdom I respected and whose friendship I treasured. No one will miss him as much as you, but know that I, for one, will remember him with affection and count myself fortunate for having known him,-for as long as I linger with “this mortal coil.”
Dick Barthelmess wrote me the news and said, in part, “I hope he is sitting on a nice comfortable cloud, conversing in Greek, with a quartet of harps playing soft chamber music to him. He’d like that.” I feel sure that’s right.
This sort of letter should be brief but I’ve gone on because I did want to say my say about a fine man, a courageous warrior and a great friend.
My wife joins me, dear Mrs. Kremer, in sending you and the children our most very sincere sympathy & friendship and the hope that the great sorrow you have will somehow be mitigated by the pride you must also feel.

Yours
Douglas Fairbanks Jr.
Lt. Commander USNR

{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

1 John T December 16, 2010 at 7:52 pm

This is a fine example of a well thought out letter.

2 Dave December 16, 2010 at 8:09 pm

Truly eloquent.

3 jay December 16, 2010 at 8:17 pm

I just lost a dear friend (died Sat, buried Tuesday; I was a pall bearer even), and this letter completely and utterly fit him.

Even down to the “John”….. :’|

4 Bruce December 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

While I understand the manliness of possessing the capability to write a quality sympathy note, it is also a skill of which both genders be proficient. Perhaps because of women’s generally better contact with their emotional selves they may be generally better at such writing. Then again, I wouldn’t want to assume that either. Americans, at least, and that’s of both genders, are probably less skilled at writing in general, if the stream of reports about school children’s deteriorating skills are indicative. A sad and unfortunate state of affairs.
Thank you for sharing Mr. Fairbanks marvelous and heartfelt letter. And, as a man new to your website, thank you for style and manner that you present the art of manliness.

5 Brett Wilkes December 16, 2010 at 8:21 pm

Jay, thanks for sharing.

6 Paul Duane December 16, 2010 at 8:23 pm

Extending sympathies in a proper, sincere way has always troubled me. So many people use the phrase “I’m sorry”. “I’m sorry” is a phrase you use to extend an apology to someone you have wronged. In matters of condolences, such is not the case. I was struck by the lack of “I’m sorry” n the note, and yet, his most genuine desire to support her emotionally was very clear. Thanks for posting this!

7 Eric Granata December 16, 2010 at 10:12 pm

Eloquent is the word! Mr. Duane makes a good point about using the word “sorry.” that’s always bothered me as well.

8 ZZ December 16, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Didn’t Lincoln write a famous sympathy note to a mother who had lost several sons in the Civil War? I think it’s known for both its deep feel and its brevity.

9 Lea December 16, 2010 at 10:50 pm

My grandfather died on Friday and today my mother received a sympathy e-card addressed to her and my grandmother (they live together) ON HER MYSPACE PAGE!!!!! from her brother, my late grandfathers son. I have half a mind to email him a link to this post and the previous post detailing the proper way to give your condolences.

10 Kyle James December 16, 2010 at 11:48 pm

Those first two lines are great. I’d say anyone trying to write a sympathy note and not knowing where to start probably couldn’t go wrong by adopting Mr. Fairbanks opening lines and then expressing their own feelings about the departed in the main body of the note. The kind of sympathy note a person can stash away and turn to whenever they are feeling the pang of loss in the years that follow (as obviously someone did because the note survived long enough to be published in a book).

11 Eric R December 17, 2010 at 4:32 am

Dear Madam—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 word of mine which shall 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,

A. LINCOLN

12 Carter December 17, 2010 at 10:44 am

A very well written letter. As is President Lincoln’s above.

Thanks for the post.

13 Sarah December 17, 2010 at 11:40 am

My friend and I were commenting lately about this very thing. She had lost her father a few years back, and was expressing how awkward the wake had been for her – because it felt as if SHE was having to comfort all of the visiting friends and family, instead of the other way around. Every time someone said “I’m sorry” to her, she felt as if she had to make them feel better or somehow make it seem like his death was “not that big a deal”.

Which is why I loved this letter – it expresses sympathy and sorrow, but more importantly celebrates and commends a life well-lived. I hope that someday someone could write these things about me (except for the fact that I’m a woman, that is).

14 Vaughn Griffeth December 18, 2010 at 1:58 am

That was quite an endearing letter, which seemed to portray the perfect balance of sympathy and brevity. I was very impressed with Mr. Fairbank’s response to such an awful tragedy.

In response to the condolence letter written above by Abraham Lincoln, may I take the time to present another, one that I feel will provide another great example of a written expression of sympathy. This letter was Mr. Lincoln’s message to a young girl named Fanny McCollough, who had just lost her father, whom Lincoln personally knew. The letter is as follows:

Executive Mansion,
Washington, December 23, 1862.

Dear Fanny

It is with deep grief that I learn of the death of your kind and brave Father; and, especially, that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say; and you need only to believe it, to feel better at once. The memory of your dear Father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad sweet feeling in your heart, of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend
A. Lincoln

15 Matt J December 18, 2010 at 11:20 pm

I have never written a condolence letter before. I know I will have to one day. At least this is a shining example of how to go about it.

16 Dan Trimble December 19, 2010 at 12:02 am

@ZZ,

The letter you refer to is probably the 1864 letter President Lincoln wrote to Mrs. Bixby, a Massachusetts mother of five sons all killed in World War II. Here is a copy of the letter, which you can also reference online (http://www.bartleby.com/43/38.html):

Executive Mansion, Washington, November 21, 1864.

Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Massachusetts:
DEAR MADAM: 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 to 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,

Abraham Lincoln.

17 Devon December 19, 2010 at 8:27 am

I love War Letters…what a book!

18 Pete December 19, 2010 at 11:02 am

An extended family member recently lost a 24 year old son to a drug overdose. Whay can I write to him? I can’t think of a thing to say. I know that he feels terrible and feels some guilt. Any help appreciated.

19 Jenny December 19, 2010 at 3:00 pm

Pete,

My sympathies to you and your family for your loss. Many years ago, my aunt told me about her mother, a raging, awful alcoholic. She had treated her children terribly spouting nothing but verbal abuse at every turn. When her mother died, none of the children had anything nice to say about her let alone something appropriate for eulogy. However, her father, who was a lovely man, had loved her mother deeply and unconditionally. So, when her mother died, the children told the priest delivering the eulogy to focus on the fact that a really good man had thought she was the sun, moon, and stars. There was no mention of the fact that he was the only one to think so. To be loved by just one person is better than to be loved by no one at all, and if that’s all there is to say of a life not well-lived then let that be the ray of light in the darkness in absence of a report of glorious deeds and respect of one’s peers.

I hope this helps you in your difficult task.

Jenny

20 Jared December 20, 2010 at 10:03 am

To be honest, I was expecting this letter to amaze me and pull on my emotional chords but actually found it very short and plain. It’s to the point and a fine example but I don’t see how it stands out from what an average writer could pen.

21 Ahmad H. December 20, 2010 at 12:24 pm

The first letter posted by Brett was a well-written piece that touched the important parts needed to be presented in a condolence letter, but I’m in agreement with Jared here. The letter wasn’t particularly awe inspiring.

The other two letters by Abraham Lincoln were excellent example of a brief yet powerful meaning conveyed in a few word. I especially liked the way he advised the individual who’s father passed, he seemed to fill her father’s role in those few moments.

22 Harold December 20, 2010 at 12:46 pm

It’s funny the different opinions people have….I personally found the letter Brett posted to be nearly perfect in tone and composition-very stirring. While I thought Lincoln’s letters were pretty banal-I had to make myself get through them. If they were not written by Lincoln, no one would think they were very interesting at all.

23 Pete December 20, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Jenny.

Thank you.

24 LPB December 22, 2010 at 6:44 pm

Well, Jared, you should give yourself all credit for knowing that you’ll always be able to do better.

Could you please post some of YOUR letters here on AOM so that the rest of us may be enlightened by your, apparently, limitless talents?

25 Patrick Dowd December 24, 2010 at 1:14 pm

I met Mr. Fairbanks once about thirty-five years ago. While knowing he was an actor, I couldn’t have named one of his movies. Your article enlightened me to the fact that he was a decorated member of our Greatest Generation. I thank you for the article and I am grateful to Mr. Fairbanks for his service to our country.

26 Shane December 27, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Jared,
It wasn’t meant to amaze, it was meant to show the proper way to write a sympathy letter. Which it does.

27 Mutuelle December 28, 2010 at 6:52 pm

Eloquent is the word! Mr. Duane makes a good point about using the word “sorry.” that’s always bothered me as well.

28 Paul S. December 31, 2010 at 11:26 am

I have had to write letters to great friends whose parents have recently died. Generally i did not know thier parents. Attached is that note that might inspire readers.

“We were saddended to hear of your father’s recent passing. The proof of one’s lifetime is not how big of an empire that was built – but rather the fine job of instiling the virtues of hard work and ethics into the next generation.

Those are the stable qualities which are needed in our everchanging society – and in friends – such as you.”
With admiration
s. ________

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