How to Write Sympathy Notes—What to Write and What to Avoid
By Cole Imperi, CT
originally published in April of 2012
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.
“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?
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.
All this said, a note written and sent is better than no note at all.