How to Write a Condolence Note

New England Woman (Mrs. Jedediah H. Richards), painting, Cecilia Beaux, 1895, Smithsonian Institution

Cecilia Beaux, New England Woman, 1895. Photo: Smithsonian Institution.

Yesterday after church I stood in line for coffee and then threaded my way through the crowd in the parlor to the note-writing table. Our pastoral care volunteers set up the table each Sunday, complete with cards, envelopes, and the names and addresses of people who have suffered losses and would like to receive notes. Two parishioners had lost family members this week, so I chose two handmade cards and sat down to write.

“Dear X, I am writing to you after the 11 o’clock service at First Parish, to send my condolences on the death of your family member. Today a breeze is coming in through the open door in the parlor, reminding me of the blessings of the natural world. May you and your family find comfort in the beauties of spring and the love of this community.”

It felt good to sit there in the church parlor, writing about the breeze coming in through the door. After awhile, someone else came along and joined me. It’s a large congregation, and I didn’t know the people I was writing to, but I’ve found that people are happy to get these notes even if they don’t know you.

Today I Googled “how to write a condolence letter” on my computer, a search that took 0.47 seconds and yielded about 170,00 results. Tops on the list is an article on Writing a Condolence Letter by Angela Morrow, RN.

Write the Letter in Your Own Voice

“Write the letter in your own voice, meaning the way you would normally speak to the person,” advises Morrow. “There is no reason to get too fancy and try to come up with a poem or verse.”

“Write in your own voice.” I think this is great advice. I believe that a handwritten message of sympathy is precious, no matter what the words say. But when my note includes some details of real life, I’m giving the recipient a chance to feel more connected at a time when connection matters deeply. That’s why I like to start sympathy letters by saying something about where I am as I write.

  • “I’m writing you from my kitchen table,” I’ll say. “It’s late at night, but I couldn’t go to bed without reaching out to you.”
  • “I’m thinking about you and wishing you were here in my living room so we could share a cup of coffee.”
  • “Yesterday I started writing to you in my head on the way home. Here are my thoughts.”

Tell a Story About the Person Who Is Gone

If you knew the person who has passed away, you might include a sentence or two about your memories of them in your note. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Mention their positive qualities: “Your mother welcomed me so warmly when I visited.”
  • Refer to their favorite activity: “I’ll never forget that your dad cooked the best ribs in the neighborhood.”
  • Remember how you last saw them: “When I stopped by last week, I was touched to see her wearing that sweater you gave her.”
  • Tell how you expect to remember them: “I know that when Thanksgiving comes around again, I’ll remember him sitting at the big table with all of us.”

On the other hand, if you didn’t know the person, you might mention something your correspondent has told you about them. “You’ve told me how you used to call him on Sunday afternoons.” Alternatively, you could share someone else’s story: “Gabriela has told me how Nana used to make soup for you even in her nineties.”

End on a Positive Note

Writing a condolence letter is an exercise in acceptance and hope. In writing to a person who has lost a loved one, we accept and acknowledge not only their loss but also our own vulnerability as human beings who too, one day, will reach the end of life. Yet through this act of acceptance we also nurture hope: the hope of connection, and the deeper intimacy of a shared sorrow. With this in mind, we can end a condolence letter on a positive note that conveys our ongoing good wishes. It’s appropriate to end with a spiritual message, though I am careful to reserve more specific religious language for people whom I know share my beliefs. I try to find words that suggest moments of comfort or relief, like the following:

  • “I am sending you light and love.”
  • “You are in my warmest thoughts and prayers.”
  • “May you find moments of comfort in your memories.”
  • “I will call you tomorrow, and in the meantime I am sending you hugs.”

May you be well, and may the letters you write bring comfort to your readers.

I welcome your comments, as well as your tips for writing condolence notes.