How to write a condolence note

Posted on April 15, 2021 by Rev. Pam Reidy under Funeral Etiquette, Pandemic
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The Covid pandemic has greatly reduced in-person opportunities to offer sympathy to the bereaved, thus written condolence messages have taken on a vital role. In last week’s blog I reviewed Liz Tichenor’s book, The Night Lake: A Young Priest Maps The Topography of Grief citing a few direct quotes. One quote reveals the importance of writing a good note.

  • “The shit people sent in cards very nearly drove me over the edge, pouring acid into my broken-open heart.  At the same time, the love people sent in cards was saving my life. Neither of these statements is the slightest exaggeration.” (pg. 44 )

Condolence notes, either in a sympathy card or a personal note, express concern, support, and affection.  We write to remind people that we are thinking of them, we are there for them, and that they are not alone. A condolence note is usually not the place to grapple with the mysteries of death or unanswered, shocking realities. Though it is healing for a grieving person to read the impact the deceased made on you, be sure to keep the focus on the deceased, not on yourself.

It is natural to try to make someone feel better, however, be careful when offering your advice or philosophical viewpoints on a death. Reflecting on a note she received from a parishioner, Liz Tichenor validates how easily well-intentioned advice or ideas can backfire. Her congregant was attempting to offer religious comfort to her minister about the death of Liz’s 4-week-old baby, here’s how it went:

  • Written Note:We each have some earthly task to do, and when it is done, we go home…. Some ripen young; some take a long time to do it.”
  • Liz’s reaction: “I was appalled, furious, Fritz did not “ripen”; he had not completed his “earthly task”, I thought, seething. How could anyone say that his time was enough?”

Certainly, there were condolence messages that comforted Liz. Among these was the person who wrote, “Call, email, write, or don’t be obligated to reply at all.”  Liz reacted: “She expected nothing of me, and I was grateful.”

What we really want a condolence note to communicate is that we connect with a grieving person’s broken heart.  Liz perfectly conveys the impact:

  • I could hear between the lines, some actually allowed this death to break their hearts, allowed it to rend them into bewildering grief. They didn’t have to be here, yet they were choosing to join me.”

Liz writes at length about a condolence letter she received from her mother’s cousin, Carl. In it he shared concern, shock, and confusion, but his words communicated a solidarity of the heart which Tichenor concludes is the key ingredient in a condolence note.

Debating at length the manifold style and format of sympathy cards, Liz says, “No amount of gaudy rhinestones and glitter and butterflies could undermine the potency of this sacrificial accompaniment people didn’t have to suffer, but they were deciding to, choosing to be with us in the exile of this dark place.” Similar to the condolence note, it isn’t the beauty or words on the card; it’s the perceived solidarity.

It is not solutions, advice, platitudes, or spiritual philosophies that a grieving person needs, it is accompaniment into the sad, dark, lonely spaces in their heart. The best condolence note communicates the writer’s willingness to go there.



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