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How to Write: Sympathy Notes

5 Apr

Sympathy Notes really get a lot of scrutiny from the recipient. The words inside a sympathy note carry a lot of weight; it’s like they are magnified. These notes are sent when someone we know and care about has experienced pain. The pain of loss. Whether that is the loss of a parent, a pet or otherwise, loss is still loss. It is feeling empty when before you were whole.

What words are ever appropriate at a time like that, right? I don’t know about you, but every time I sit down to write one of these notes, I always think that there are really no words that exist that will actually bring comfort.

And then I remember, that statement is true. A sympathy note is not actually intended to make the situation better because it really can’t make the situation better. Instead, a sympathy note is a way to say ‘Hi, I’m here, and I’m thinking of you.’ It’s a reminder that the recipient has many people in his or her life to help fill in that empty spot.

There are lots of things you can say in a sympathy note, most of which are probably fine. However, there are a few things you should avoid saying in a sympathy note and I’ll tell you why.

Just Call

“If there’s anything I can do, let me know,” or “If there’s anything I can do, just call.”

Those are both very nice sentiments and anyone who says them means well. However, what you are really saying is: “I’ll help, but you have to call me first.” When someone is grieving, the last thing they need is another ball in their court, so to speak. And honestly, they’re not going to call. It’s better to say something like “I’m going to call you next week to check on you” or “I’m going to email you next week to check in with you, in case you need anything.”

When I discovered this tip, I was a little shocked. I said this all the time to people. I’d even post it on Facebook. And I was not the only one. Someone might post that they were sick, and there’d be eight Facebook comments of people saying “If you need something, just call!” It’s just another way of not really saying anything at all.

A Better Place

“They’re better off now,” or “They’re happy now,” or even “They’re in a better place.”

Even if the person you are writing to has said one of the above statements to you, it’s still best not to say it yourself. Honestly, maybe they’re not better off. Perhaps things happened you’re not aware of. The issue with this statement is that it’s not really a comfort to the person that was left behind. The person who died is still dead. They’re still dead whether they’re better off or not. And, the person receiving your sympathy note is probably not better off, definitely not happy now, and likely not in a better place. How can a dead person be better off than the living person you are writing to?

“I Understand”

Be careful when you say you understand or you know how the person feels (particularly when you’ve never been through the same situation). Let me give you an example. When a friend loses a parent, I will usually include a statement like this:

“While I can’t understand what it’s like to lose a parent, I can understand what it’s like to be loved by a parent. I know how much your father loved you. I remember in high school how he’d pick us up after track practice and he’d always kiss you on your cheek, give you a hug, and ask you how your day was when we’d get in the car. I vividly remember how much love your Dad had for you.”

Everything I said was completely and totally true. I didn’t say I knew or I understood when I really don’t know and I really don’t understand. Plus, I was positive. I wasn’t talking about death, I was talking about life.  Be considerate of this when you sit down to write a sympathy note.

Take the Time

Most anything written in a sympathy note has good intentions behind it. However, if you are going to take the time to write one, really pay attention to what you are saying versus what you are meaning. They can be different. If you want to actually do something for the bereaved, say what it is and commit to it. Don’t put anything back on the bereaved. Don’t comment on where the deceased has gone or how the deceased may be doing. Focus on the person you are writing to, the person who is still alive and dealing with the aftermath.

Death is a funny thing. It happens to all of us, and will happen to everyone we know. Yet, many of us struggle with how to act or what to say when it happens. If you stay positive and commit to doing something for the bereaved you’ll stand a better chance of sending a note that is meaningful, memorable and a true comfort.

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Meet the Writer: Cole Imperi is a business owner and a proponent of the handwritten word. When not at Doth Brands, a Branding & Identity firm catering to the health, wellness & deathcare professions where Cole works as Owner and Creative Director, you might find her on her yoga mat teaching yoga or behind a laptop writing for Simplicity Embellished, a letter-writing and lifestyle blog.

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21 Responses to “How to Write: Sympathy Notes”

  1. Tamra Orr April 5, 2012 at 12:57 PM #

    Thanks, Cole. That was an excellent article! I have been shocked at how many sympathy cards I have had to send out in recent years (the hazards of being in your 50s, I guess), and I always sit there with pen in hand, wondering what in the world i can say to make things better. Your point that you CAN’T is well taken. Just state that you care, you’re thinking of that person, and if you can mention a story or anecdote about the person who has been lost, all the better. We want to know our loved ones are remembered. Thanks again.

    • Cole April 15, 2012 at 9:38 AM #

      Thanks Tamra. You are so right, people want to know their loved ones are remembered. Thanks for reading.
      Cole

  2. mylibrarycardworeout April 14, 2012 at 7:51 AM #

    Wow. This is an amazing blog post. I really did not know all of these things and I have definitely written letters with all of these phrases in them. I now know that I really have to think about writing a sympathy letter.
    This was the perfect blog post as I was looking for a post of how to write a sympathy letter as I now have to send quite a few out.
    I must thank you as the post was really well written and I have come away knowing something more. Keep up the amazing writing.

    • Cole April 15, 2012 at 9:31 AM #

      Thanks for your comment, mylibrarycardworeout. I’m sad to hear you have occasion to write a sympathy note, but I’m really happy to hear that what I wrote resonated with you.
      -Cole

  3. Matthew April 14, 2012 at 8:13 AM #

    Great article. Thanks for these well thought out tips on writing what probably amount to the most important words we will ever write to someone.

    • Cole April 15, 2012 at 9:32 AM #

      Glad you enjoyed Matthew. I think you are definitely right, words in a sympathy notes are very important to the recipient. They carry a lot of weight.

  4. Limner April 14, 2012 at 2:58 PM #

    There are no such things as accidents. I posted a comment to a friend about the loss of a pet just recently. Empathy and sympathy moved me to write, but I will follow up with a sympathy card. It will reflect my emotions.

    Thanks Cole.

    • Cole April 15, 2012 at 9:35 AM #

      Hey Limner! Glad you found the post and liked it. And I’m sorry to hear your friend lost a pet. Losing a pet is awful.

  5. David R. Singer April 15, 2012 at 4:39 AM #

    This was a great article. I haven’t written too man sympathy letters, but the few I’ve written were rife with the common mistakes mentioned in this blog. I wish I could take them back now, or I hope the people I sent them to know that I’m not as obtuse as I sounded in them. Thank you for writing such an informative thoughtful entry.

    • Cole April 15, 2012 at 9:36 AM #

      David, I doubt anyone took offense at what you said and I’m sure they all appreciated that you took the time to write in the first place. Many people don’t. Hopefully you won’t have to write too many more sympathy notes.
      Thanks for reading, and for your thoughtful comment.
      Cole

  6. Rick Schrager May 18, 2012 at 12:21 PM #

    Thank you for the nicely written article and good advice. Bridges and Curtis, “A Gentleman Pens a Note”, suggest that we include a fond rememberance of the deceased whenever possible. Such as “your mother’s welcoming manner”, or “your father’s talent for lighting up a room with his stories.”

    Thank you for your “Just Call” advice. I have been guilty of that myself without so much as a second thought.

  7. Skip Heflin May 19, 2012 at 10:43 AM #

    Wow, this was informative! I want to print this whole series out and file it for future reference, thanks for curating it.

    • Cole May 21, 2012 at 4:26 PM #

      Rick & Skip: Great comments and thank you for the kudos!
      Carol: One should always be true to their religion, or sensitive to the faiths of others if the situation calls for it. Great input.

  8. Carol May 20, 2012 at 9:31 AM #

    Thanks for a well-written article of good advice. However, you may want to reconsider the single sentence “How can a dead person be better off than the living person you are writing to?” because for Christians and Moslems, as well as some others, yes, the person is hoped be on to a better life. Just my $0.02, but please consider it.
    Pax et bonum,
    Carol

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