At some point, each of us will be in the uncomfortable position of having to write a condolence letter to a friend in mourning. Loss hits us all differently, and most of us are at a loss for words when someone dies. Writing a well-worded condolence letter or note is a good way to avoid tongue-tied conversations while still offering support and sympathy. Mourners will also find comfort in a well-written letter and may read it again and again for support. Crafting a condolence letter takes a bit of effort, but above all, the writer must put themselves in the shoes of the bereaved. We have outlined a few tips for talking and writing about loss with your mourning friends.
How to Help a Friend Mourning a Loss
Mourning a loss is universally recognized as difficult. When we see friends, colleagues and loved ones processing loss, we often feel sympathetic but powerless. For those mourning, an intense mixture of emotions and pain can be exhausting, and yet the preparations for funerals, wakes, and estate settling all must be done. It is common for mourners to experience anxiety, anger, numbness, sadness, guilt, and even relief. As part of the support network, those of us who know the mourner can reach out and assuage some of these stressors. Grieving friends need to be distracted, held, comforted, and heard. It is ok for grieving people to simply take a break from grieving and return to it later, refreshed. As friends, our job is to help create that space for mourners to get away from grief. Don't worry about being a bother; your presence is everything but that.
That being said, there is no need to dance around the loss. If you know the deceased or know the impact the deceased had on your friend, say so. Write a letter, have a conversation, or simply acknowledge that you know your friend is hurting. Reminding your friend of the positive things about the departed can be comforting and can help them to let go. Keep in mind that your friend is taking things one step at a time. Recognize that their process will be unique to them and scaffold them in situationally appropriate ways.
How to Express Sympathy
Sympathy means letting someone know that you can comprehend how they are feeling and that you are there for them. Be careful, when expressing sympathy, of being overly empathetic. If you get yourself too wrapped up in the emotions of loss, the bereaved may feel that they need to comfort you. This can be exhausting and frustrating.
Listen when your friend talks. There is no need to solve the problem of grieving for your friend. There is no need to justify your friend's grief or to compare it to grief you have experienced in the past. Some good words to use when you are listening to your friend include expressions of agreement and acknowledgment, like "Yeah, your dad was always a funny guy," in response to a loving story, or "I never knew that about them, thank you for sharing."
Don't allow the loss to dominate the conversation. If your friend seems to be done talking about the situation, don't press it. Let them know that if they want to talk more, they are welcome to. Otherwise, move the conversation along. Be responsive and respectful to your friend's social needs during this time. Sometimes, those who are experiencing loss need to think about other things than the loss. If you continue to bring the conversation back around to the loss, it can be exhausting and painful for the bereaved. Allow them to steer conversations about loss as they need.
Be there. Sometimes people don't know what they need. Just being truly available to the bereaved is often the best method of helping them. If you know the person closely, take on some of the responsibility of the day-to-day for them. Make them dinner one night, offer to take them out for coffee, or assist them in household chores. When you offer to help, make the offer specific and sincere. Often, people who have lost a loved one don't want to be a burden to those around them and are unlikely to cash in a blank check offer for help. Let your friend know how you are able to help and take the onus of reaching out off of them.
Condolence Letter Templates
Condolence letters come in a few different forms. There are professional letters, short notes, cards, digital letters, social media posts, and the good old hand-written letter. Each of these has its place, depending on your relationship to the bereaved. Below, we offer some tips for writing condolence letters in a few situations and media. We have highlighted 3 statements for professional notes, 5 useful phrases for short notes, as well as 5 tips for writing a strong long-form condolence letter.
For a Colleague or Employee
When someone you work with is experiencing a loss, it is important to let them know that their work community is understanding and supportive. Most people will want to get back to work but may be a little out of sorts from time to time. If they don't know that their workplace supports them, they may feel guilty and unproductive during this time. Often, a good idea for workplace loss is a pool of resources. Having the team chip in on flowers is a nice way to show that everyone has the bereaved in their thoughts. With those flowers, there should be some kind of written note.
For employees that are not close with the bereaved, but still cross paths with them, a well-worded group note is the best option. Each team member can sign their full name to the note, and the bereaved will know that at very least, the team is aware and sympathetic to their loss. Some good phrases for group notes include
We were sorry to hear about the recent passing of your (whoever). We wanted to let you know that all of us in the office are here for you and that we send our warmest regards to you and your family.
Our sincerest condolences for your loss. Please know that during this difficult time, the team has your back.
We are all here to support you during this time. Please take care of yourself and your loved ones.
For colleagues who are close with the bereaved, a personal note may be more appropriate. Chances are, if you have a co-worker or employee you work with day in and day out, you have heard stories about their loved ones. You may have even met the deceased at a family gathering or outing. In addition to signing your name on the group message, slipping in a note or letter of your own will mean a lot to the mourner.
1. Add Personal Touches
Mention that, although you don't know the deceased (well), you understand how important they were to the loved one from how they talked about them.
2. Avoid Cliches
Don't tell the bereaved that you can't imagine how they are feeling or that death is a just a new horizon. Be authentic and genuine in your sympathy.
3. Steer Clear of Religious Undertones
Unless you know that you share the same faith, stay away from religion. Hearing about God's will can do the exact opposite of calm someone who doesn't ascribe to that doctrine.
4. Keep It Professional
If you know this person mainly through work, don't overstep normal boundaries. If you wouldn't usually come over for dinner, don't offer to do it now.
For a Friend
When friends lose a loved one, most of us are quickly tongue-tied. We desperately want to help, we long to comfort, but we just don't know what good we are at the moment. It is ok to acknowledge that feeling but avoid trite expressions like "I can't imagine." We can say things like, "I know you have lost your [name, or title], and I can see how hard it is on you. I wish I knew what to say, but I don't." It is ok to let the bereaved know that you are confused while still offering comfort. Some good methods to communicate sympathy to a friend include social media, cards, and letters.
Social Media and Short Notes
Never out a person's death on the bereaved's social media page. If the mourner has not already posted about the loss, don't mention it there. Assuming they have posted the loss, a short, authentic note is acceptable. These notes should be followed up with something more personal, however, like a card or phone call. Short messages should be to the point, offer specific help, and keep things light. Here are 5 short messages you could use:
- I was deeply saddened to hear about your loss. Let me know if I can bring you a casserole this week or assist you with any preparations.
- Your (whoever) was such a light in this world. Their smile brought joy to all those around. They will be deeply missed.
- I'm so sorry to hear about your loss. I will be in the area later this week and would like to stop by to help you with (whatever.) I will call you soon.
- We love and care about you so much! Please know that we are thinking of you during this difficult time.
- There are no words to express my sorrow for your loss. I am here if you need someone to talk with. You are so strong!
5 Tips For Longer Letters
Here are some tips for writing longer personal letters:
- Longer letters should include memories of the deceased. Keep memories happy and light. Remind the bereaved of the good times. Mourners will appreciate being able to re-experience a fond time.
- Get out a pen and paper. Handwritten letters just feel more personal. Use a nice piece of stationary or a blank card. If you compose letters more naturally by typing, simply re-write the letter once you have typed it out. Mail or hand deliver the letter promptly.
- Avoid email. When we receive an email, we feel the need to respond to that email. Mourners may be overwhelmed by incoming messages and may feel guilty that they were unable to respond to you.
- Don't mention money, estate planning, or unsettled scores. Even if you owe money to the deceased, keep a lid on that until things have settled down a little bit. Don't bring up past slights and arguments. Keep the tone positive and kind.
- Don't make the letter about you. Avoid comparing your friend's loss to anything you have experienced. Each person's loss is unique. At most, you can offer to talk about how you have coped with loss if/when the person is ready to do so.
There is no wrong format for a condolence letter, but here are some generally included sections.
- Begin the letter with a sincere recognition of the loss and offer your sympathy. Don't beat around the bush. The bereaved know that they are grieving. Hemming and hawing about it is frustrating.
- Offer a fond memory or statement acknowledging how important the deceased is to your friend.
- Offer concrete and sincere help.
- Keep it short and simple. At most, if you are very close with the bereaved, the reader will be able to handle two handwritten pages.
- End the letter with encouragement and comfort. Sometimes writing these statements can feel clunky, because we are not used to encouraging those around us in our culture. Take some time and create a true, heartfelt statement. If you are really at a loss for this, it is ok to end on a quote that you have found comforting in the past.
- Sign your full name. Chances are that the bereaved is getting a lot of communication. Make it easy for them to understand who you are by the end of the letter.
The loss of a loved one is one of the hardest things most people face. For those of us lucky enough to be friends with the mourner, we have a job to do. We have some responsibility to support the bereaved on an emotional and practical level. Although it may be hard for us to connect with the part of ourselves that eloquently thinks of death, tapping into our own emotions allows us to offer better support. Before we say or do anything in response to a friend's loss, we should examine our own emotions and get a handle on them. Once we know how we feel and are comfortable offering support, we can reach out. Reaching out via a handwritten note or letter is a lasting and accessible way of sharing our condolences with the bereaved. There is no pressure to think on the fly. We are able to succinctly state our memories and feelings, and we can offer concrete help such that the bereaved can reference the offer later. In times of loss, mourners need their friends and colleagues to be supportive, patient, and honest with them.