Friday, May 16, 2014

On writing condolence letters

Recently I have written quite a few condolence letters. They are so difficult to write. You want to let the recipient know that you care, that you are thinking of them, but the words you put down can so often seem trite or sappy. Beyond that, you don't want to say the wrong thing and possibly hurt the recipient. 

I've read a few articles and have some of my own ideas that I'd like to share:

1. It doesn't have to be very long.
I recently wrote a condolence letter to a co-worker who lost her father. I do not know her very well; she is definitely an acquaintance, and I had never met her father. For an occasion like this I didn't have much to say. An important aspect here is choosing a good card. The card I chose was medium sized, so when I didn't write much it wasn't like the text was just swimming in a huge card, looking like it's not really finished. I think it's best not to go on a lot if you don't really have much to say.

2. Don't worry too much about it being a bit trite. 
The fact alone that you took the time to sit down and write a letter will show that you care. If the only things you can think to write seem over-used, don't worry about it. Expressions of grief are always hard. The important thing is to let the person know that you have them in your thoughts.

3. If you do know the person who passed away, share a sweet memory of them.
It is bittersweet, but I really think that it's good to share a nice memory.

4. If you think that the death must have been a relief to the family, don't say so.
Recently the last of my grandparents' dogs died. This dog had been sick for a long time and was preventing my grandmother from getting good sleep because of its needs. I am sure that in some ways it's passing was a relief to them. But I didn't mention it in my letter. It has the possibility to offend, and I think it places emphasis on the wrong things.

5. Don't give vague offers of help.
One of the articles I read earlier this year (I don't remember where) gave the advice that you should avoid saying things like "If there's anything I can do, just let me know." These offers are not very likely to be taken advantage of. Most people will feel awkward actually asking for help. If you know the person well enough, just straight up offer to do something specific (maybe even in person). Go grocery shopping for them. Bring over a meal. When my co-worker's father passed away I wanted to do something nice for her that might brighten her day a little bit, so with the card I gave a little bag of chocolate caramels.  I'm not sure about the traditional propriety of giving someone chocolate after a death, but I did it anyway. I was trying to show that she was thought of in this hard time.

6. No mail art
Although I decorate almost every personal piece of mail that I send, I do not decorate the envelopes for condolence letters. I put effort into writing the address very nicely, most times with one of my fountain pens, and I choose a pretty stamp, but I feel that mail art is too irreverent. 

I don't at all think that these are rules to follow in every situation, but I've found them to be things that make sense and work for me. Do you have any advice or suggestions about writing condolence letters?

And... here's a link to a few very well written condolence letters on the blog Letters of Note.


  1. Luckily I have no experience with writing condolence letters. I'm sorry you've had to write a few condolence letters recently. I really like the idea of writing a memory if you know the person.

  2. Thank you for the post, Emilie; these are good bits of advice. I've never regretted offering even the most awkward condolence, but I have regretted silence.