Having been writing and posting letters since I was knee-high…
Most of us know exactly what to write in a birthday or Christmas card – after all, we’ve been writing them at the same time every year for many years – however, when it comes to those less frequent occasions, we can struggle with knowing what to say. Especially when someone is grieving. There are no set rules for this, and we are not taught about what to write in sympathy cards in school; this is something we have to learn for ourselves, and it can get some of us rather stressed out. After all, what if we write the wrong thing?
Why write a sympathy card?
Nobody wants to have to write a sympathy card, but it is impossible to go through life and not have anybody you care for experience a loss. It is a fact of life. When these heart-breaking events occur, we naturally want to convey our condolences to our loved ones and offer our support, and despite all other contact (text messages, phone calls, emails, etc.) the best way to do this is through the sending of a sympathy card. I am not suggesting you don’t do the other things – in fact, I encourage these other options also – but there is something special about a handwritten note in these circumstances that cannot be replaced. It is a time of reflection for the bereaved, and handwritten cards and letters can be read and re-read by the recipient, and then kept if they so wish.
Tips for writing a sympathy card
There are no real rules, but the below are some tips which will help guide you in what to write:
- Choose an appropriate card. If your grieving friend isn’t religious, don’t give them a religious card – even if you are religious. Simple cards are the best, as they are a blank canvas for you to write a personal message – too much printed writing inside ruins the personal feel.
- Talk about the person who has died. If you knew them well, mention a fond memory you have of them. If you didn’t know them so well, mention some positive characteristics of theirs, such as their ability to make people laugh in any circumstances, or their commitment to helping their favourite charity.
- Offer your help, in an appropriate way – but only if you can genuinely complete the task. For example, perhaps you could offer your services for childcare, to look after a pet, or provide some meals. Think practical. Writing “if you need anything, I’m here” is nice in theory, but it is an offer that won’t very often be taken up, as it is too vague.
What not to write in a sympathy card
Don’t tell them you know how they feel – we all process loss differently. Don’t offer advice, don’t focus on the circumstances surrounding the death, don’t assign blame, and don’t tell them they will feel better in X amount of time. Just be gently supportive. Think about what you would like or need to hear if you were in their shoes.
Following up your sympathy card
Grief can last a very long time, and loss can be especially hard for those left behind on special occasions such as the deceased’s birthday, wedding anniversaries, Christmas, and the anniversary of their death. You could make a note of these dates, and offer support to your friend or relative on these tough milestones. Your note can be simple; just let them know they are in your thoughts, and the offer of help still stands if needed. Let them know it is OK to still be feeling sad.