Useful Skills to Have: Writing a Condolence Letter

The condolence letter, at least a well-crafted one, appears to be a dying (so to speak) art, which is really a pity, because it’s a useful skill to have. At some point in your life, you are probably going to have to send one. A well-written condolence letter can make a huge difference in someone’s life, and it doesn’t have to be very difficult to do! Since I’ve been writing rather a lot of them lately, I thought I’d offer up my general condolence letter template for the public good (and I would note that this works for all species). Your mileage may vary, etc., but I notice that a lot of people don’t send condolence letters because they don’t know what to say, and having a little guidance can help.

Some general things to start with:

Yes, write an actual letter. Not an email or a Facebook update or whatever. Sit down and write a letter. A card is fine, it doesn’t have to be an epic. If you’re sending a card, use a blank card, not one with pre-printed sentiments on it. You know the recipient better than I do, but cheesy poetry and obvious themes (schmaltzy lilies and angels) are best left on the rack. Pick something that indicates you put some thought into it. Think about who you’re writing for; did you lose someone, and you want to send a card to the person’s surviving family? Are you sending a card to someone who lost a close friend or family member you didn’t know well? If you don’t know the recipient well, something simple and understated is probably the way to go.

Religion: I’m atheist, so I don’t talk about religion in condolence cards, even when sending them to people who are religious, because it makes me feel uncomfortable. You may feel differently! If you share religious beliefs with the addressee, it’s entirely appropriate to mention them. If you don’t…think carefully. I’ve gotten some well-meaning cards from people with a whole lot of Jesus in them, and they were just not what I needed at that time. Even things like ‘I’m sure he’s in Heaven/a better place now’ can feel jarring when you are emotionally raw. If you don’t know about the religious beliefs of the addressee, play it safe and don’t bring it up.

Condolence letters are not such a great time to be bringing up family feuds (‘I’m so glad you had a chance to reconcile before he died’) or making comments like ‘well, at least she’s not suffering now.’ A condolence letter is an act of love and support offered to someone who is grieving. It’s about them and what they are experiencing. It is also not about you and what you are experiencing, beyond a note that you may be grieving as well; ‘I share your sorrow’ as opposed to ‘I am sobbing inconsolably on the carpet at the thought of never being able to see her sweet face again.’

A condolence letter should include three basic components:

  • Hi, I’m writing you because someone died, and that is very sad.
  • Some sort of personal discussion about the deceased; if you are writing a condolence letter because you were close to the deceased and you want to send some love to other family/friends, talking about personal memories is good, especially discussing aspects of the person’s life the family might not have known about, and would want to know about. As is mentioning the deceased’s relationship with the recipient—’he often talked about you.’ If you are writing a condolence to a friend when you don’t know the deceased very well, you should be able to come up with something—’I know she was a very important person in your life.’ If you knew both parties equally well, try to think of something the recipient might like to hear—’I have fond memories of the time…’ etc. Keep it appropriate to the recipient. Some people might enjoy getting a funny story about an event. Others might prefer a more serious reflection, like appreciation for advise or assistance the deceased offered at some point. This is the part of the letter where you want to leave the recipient with something to hold on to. Be original. ‘She seemed like a very nice person’ doesn’t really cut the mustard.
  • A closing offer of assistance, if appropriate/comfortable, and a reiteration that, you know, dying is sad, and you are thinking good thoughts. Don’t offer assistance unless you mean it, and don’t be pushy about it. Leave the door open, essentially. People seem to be split on the assistance issue; some sources recommend offering specific assistance, while others suggest leaving it open-ended. It can be hard to ask for help with an open-ended offer and easier if someone says something like ‘please let me know if you need help taking care of the horses.’ Go with your gut, and how well you know the recipient, again.

These can play out in a lot of different ways, depending on who you are writing to, but, basically, you could say something like this (this is an entirely made-up letter, apologies to all my friends named Emily):

Hello Emily,

I’m so sorry for your loss. I know that your mother was an important figure in your life and that she will be missed.

I only met your mother a few times, but I was always struck by Mary’s graciousness in inviting me into her home, and often offering me helpful advice and guidance. She always made me feel like a welcome member of the family and that meant a lot to me during some hard times.

If there is any assistance you need during your time of grief, please do not hesitate to ask. I am thinking of you and Jane.

With love,

s.e.

Condolence letters don’t have to be long! This is a very short note that would fit just fine in a blank card. Don’t overthink it and don’t stuff your word count. The important thing is that you mean it, and express some originality in your note. Try to think of something about the deceased that stood out for you, even if you didn’t know the person. Presumably your friend talked at some point, shared stories, and you can draw upon that to personalise the letter.

If you have personal mementos you are willing to share, consider passing them on; copies of photographs, for example, or a link to photos online. Photographs of original artwork. You get the gist.

Getting letters means a lot, as you probably know if you’ve experienced a loss. For those who haven’t, seriously, they mean a lot, and they don’t take very long to write and send. It can be hard to write a letter because it feels awkward and strange, but people will appreciate it, and they will remember.