For some people, writing a note in a sympathy card (sometimes referred to as a condolence card) is an easy task. For others, it's the equivalent of having a tooth pulled. Why is it often so difficult to express your condolences? Death is an uncomfortable topic. We want to make the bereaved feel better but know that’s an impossible task. Mostly, we’re afraid of writing something that could be taken the wrong way. So how do you approach this touchy task? What exactly should you write in a condolence card? The main purpose of sending a sympathy card is to show those in mourning that you are thinking of them. So say so: "I just wanted to let you know I am thinking about you during your time of loss. You are in my heart, now and always."
When deciding what to write in a condolence card, start with your own feelings. By showing empathy for the bereaved, you're validating their feelings. A simple "I'm so sorry for your loss" can go a long way.
However, you should never compare your own sorrow to that of the immediate family. First, you don't actually know how deep their grief is. Second, this is not a competition and, even if you are trying to be empathetic, your words could end up hurting instead of consoling.
Particularly in the case of an unexpected death or the death of someone very young, be honest in your inability to convey your feelings: "Words cannot express how deeply saddened I am by your loss. I can't imagine the grief you are experiencing. I can, however, tell you that I am thinking of you and sending you my sincere condolences."
For a card memorializing someone who died after a lengthy illness, encourage the bereaved to remember their loved one in better times.
Here is an example of what to write in a sympathy card for someone after a lengthy illness: "I know these past [days/months/years] have been difficult ones for you. I hope you will remember [name of deceased] when [he/she] was in good health. Think of the good times you had, the laughs you shared. I'm sure that [name of deceased] would want you to remember [him/her] in a favorable light. Hold on to these dearest of memories; I hope they will provide a source of comfort to you in the years to come."
It's easier to know what to write in a condolence card if you actually knew the deceased. You can take this opportunity to share a personal anecdote involving their loved one. Who knows, you may even be showing the survivors a side of the deceased's personality that they did not know before. Often, you may be unable to attend the actual funeral due to distance or other constraints. Use the sympathy card to say how sorry you are that you could not attend, and put in writing what you would have said if you'd been there in person. For example: "I wish I could be there to comfort you in your time of need. I want to hold your hand and give you a big hug. No matter how many miles separate us, know that I am right there beside you in spirit."
You may find it easier to offer practical help or guidance. If a surviving spouse is elderly, you can offer to chip in with household tasks. Be sure to follow up your note with a personal phone call, as the bereaved may feel he/she is imposing by asking for assistance.
On the other hand, if a family with children is left without a major source of income, you could write of your desire to set up a fund for them. This can give the family a much-needed sense of security when they are most vulnerable.
If the deceased was passionate about a certain cause or charity, you can offer to make a donation in his/her memory. Even better, you can write of your plans to volunteer your own time to support the organization: "I can't think of a better way to honor your [relative's] memory than to give of myself to [name of charity], which was so close to [his/her] heart."
For someone who has lost a parent, one of the most thoughtful tributes you can give is by praising the son or daughter. This indirectly praises the deceased parent. For example: "Your [father/mother] was so very proud of you. [He/she] did such a great job raising you. Your dedication to your [family/job/community, etc.] is a wonderful reflection on your parent. Every day, you are a living testament to the values that your [father/mother] held so dear.
The loss of a child is perhaps the most unfathomable kind of grief. A parent may feel responsible in some way for the child's death, no matter how illogical this might be. Reaffirm what a great parent the person was.
Here is an example of what to write in a sympathy card for someone who has lost a child: "[Name of child] was so very lucky to have you as a parent. You were incredibly loving and caring." For the loss of a child a bit older, you could add: "You were a wonderful role model for [name of child]. You always focused on the positive, and I am hoping that you can try to do so during this time of immense pain. Think of [child's] smile, and let it bring a little light into every single day."
Did the deceased have a favorite biblical passage, singer, poet or author? You can use an excerpt to express your own thoughts.
If the recipient of your card is a religious [insert link to religious funerals page] person, it may bring them comfort to send a more spiritual message: "You and your family are in my prayers" or "May God comfort you in your time of loss."
Here are a few biblical verses to consider for a condolence card:
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge. He is my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul; He guideth me in straight paths for His name's sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me; Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.
He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.
And here are excerpts from several songs that can comfort the grieving:
"Angel" by Sarah McLachlan
You're in the arms of the angel
May you find some comfort here
"You'll Be in My Heart" by Phil Collins
'Cause you'll be in my heart
Yes, you'll be in my heart
From this day on
Now and forever more
You'll be in my heart
No matter what they say
You'll be here in my heart
"Bridge Over Troubled Water" by Simon and Garfunkel
When you're weary, feeling small
When tears are in your eyes, I'll dry them all
I'm on your side, oh, when times get rough
And friends just can't be found
Like a bridge over troubled water
I will lay me down
"Leader of the Band" by Dan Fogelberg
I thank you for the music and your stories of the road
I thank you for the freedom when it came my time to go
I thank you for the kindness and the times when you got tough
And papa, I don't think I said I love you near enough
Following are excerpts of poems that can offer comfort:
"Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" by Dylan Thomas
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day
"On Another's Sorrow" by William Blake
Can I see another's woe,
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another's grief,
And not seek for kind relief?
"After Great Pain, A Formal Feeling Comes" by Emily Dickinson
This is the hour of lead,
Remembered if outlived,
As freezing persons recollect the snow —
First chill, then stupor, then the letting go
Don't overthink what to write in a condolence card. Write from the heart. Your words will be sincere and be most welcome.
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