Guide to Holiday Card Etiquette After a Death in the Family


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When the holidays roll around, you may take time to send special holiday cards to friends and family. This is a thoughtful gesture, but it can be painful for those who have experienced a loss. The holidays are an especially difficult time for people who are mourning a loved one.

But did you know there’s a way you can reach out to people in a way that won’t cause them more pain? 

Holiday Cards for Someone Who's Had a Death in the Family

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Christmas or holiday card etiquette after a death in the family can also be difficult if you’ve had a death in your own family. Many of us use holiday cards to talk about what has happened in our lives over the past year. Revisiting that loss in a holiday card can be painful. It can also be cathartic and healing.

Here, we explore the etiquette in crafting holiday cards for people who are grieving — even if that person is you. We also include sample messages to help you find the right words to acknowledge the loss, whether it's in a card or on a memorial page with a platform like GatheringUs or Everloved.

Sending a Holiday Card to Someone Who Had a Death in the Family

Example of a holiday car message over an image of holiday decorations

When you’re making a list of holiday card recipients, you may be tempted to skip sending one to someone who is grieving. You may worry that you are rubbing your happiness in their faces. You may feel concerned that your card will dredge up memories of holidays before their loss.

But if you’ve always sent a holiday card to this person, passing them over can be even crueler. Most people who are grieving don’t want to be treated differently. Go ahead and send a card. But read on for ideas on how you can handle it in a way that is kind and sensitive. 

» MORE: Online obituary that is 100% free. Honor a loved one beyond a newspaper.

What to consider

Do you keep a list of the people you include in your holiday cards? If you send a lot of cards, it’s easy to go on autopilot. But be sure to pay attention to the details when writing a card to someone in mourning. If your friend’s husband died, addressing the card in both of their names could inflict a lot of emotional pain. Make sure you address a sympathy card or holiday card in a way that won’t put salt in the wounds.

If a loved one has lost a child, reading a holiday newsletter with information about your own child may also be painful. Instead of sending that friend the same letter you send everyone else, consider composing a separate card just for her.

You can still share information about your life in a way that is sensitive to her loss. You can even talk about the child she lost if you think that might help her. You may avoid talking about the deceased because you’re afraid of causing pain. But it can be even more hurtful to erase the deceased’s existence.

Reminiscing about the deceased can help the recipient feel more connected to the person they’re mourning. Ultimately, you need to use your best judgment based on your relationship with the recipient.  

Sample messages to send

It’s hard to know what to say when someone has died. It’s also difficult to know how to say “Merry Christmas” to someone who’s grieving. We’ve put together some sample messages to help inspire you as you write a card to someone in mourning.  

1. “I know the holidays must be very difficult for you this year. I just wanted you to know that I’m keeping you in my heart.”

You don’t have to get into the painful details of someone’s death. But you can still acknowledge the loss. Just doing that shows you have some empathy for what that person’s going through. 

2. “I know this holiday probably won’t be your happiest. The new year is around the corner, and I hope that it brings some unexpected joy your way.”

The thing about grieving is that the pain does lessen with time. You don’t have to put on a falsely cheery front for your friend. It’s okay to acknowledge the pain.

But you can also gently remind your friend that there is some hope waiting for him as time passes. That’s one of the best gifts you can give someone in mourning.

3. “The holidays were so difficult for me after my mother passed away. I felt very lonely in my grief. If you need to talk to someone, please call or text me anytime. I’m always happy to lend an ear.” 

There’s always a fine line when you bring up your own personal tragedies when trying to comfort someone else. Every loss is unique.

You don’t want to make it seem as though you’re trying to compare their loss to your own. You also don’t want to make the conversation about yourself. It is okay to mention similar experiences though, as a point of connection. This lets your friend know that you’re a safe person to talk to if and when they’re ready. 

4. “I’ll be lighting a candle for your mom on Christmas Eve this year if that’s okay. She’s always on my mind. I know how much she loved the holidays.”

If the recipient of the card comes from a religious background, you may offer to keep them in your prayers during the holiday season. A lot of people become more spiritually engaged during the holiday season, so it’s a lovely gesture to make.

Just be sure it’s a gesture that would be appreciated. If the person you’re reaching out to or the deceased was not religious, it may not be appropriate. 

» MORE: An online memorial is a perfect ending to honor and celebrate someone's life. Create one for free.

Etiquette for Sending a Card if You Had a Death in Your Family

Example of a holiday card message over an image of a blank holiday card

If you have experienced a loss in your family, you may not be up for sending a holiday card. Even if it happened months earlier, the holidays can dredge up painful memories.

Your loss often feels more profound on special occasions, including your first holiday season without your family member. If you are up for sending a card though, there are a few etiquette tips to keep in mind. Read on for more details. 

What to consider

Your holiday card list may include acquaintances that you only communicate with a few times a year. Probably the most important thing to pay attention to is whether the recipient knows about the loss in your family.

If your contacts live far away or aren’t on social media, it’s possible they missed a death announcement at the time. If you’re unsure of whether someone on your card list knows about the death in your family, consider sending that person a separate card. This will enable you to break the news more gently. 

» MORE: Grief can be lonely. Create space for your community to share memories and tributes with a free online memorial from Cake.

Sample messages to send

Writing a holiday card when you’re emotional over the loss of a loved one can be draining. Here, we’ve compiled some sample messages to help give you a place to start.    

1. “Christmas was my dad’s favorite holiday. Finding the perfect gifts for people always made him so happy. He was a believer in the spirit of Christmas. Now, I feel as though his spirit is part of this holiday.”

If your loved one adored a holiday, it can be bittersweet to remember that person during that time. Ultimately though, it may help you feel closer to the deceased as you experience the aspects of the holiday that they enjoyed most. 

2. “My grandmother’s absence will be felt at our table this year. But the hole she left behind has been filled somewhat by the outpouring of love from our friends and family.”

After someone passes away, you may have a difficult time responding to condolences. It can be hard to acknowledge them when you are in pain. A holiday card is a great place to thank people for their love and support. 

3. “This will be our first Christmas without Mom. As you know, she took great pleasure in sending and receiving holiday cards. Though we’re having a hard time, we wanted to keep this important tradition alive.” 

It’s okay to let people know you’re struggling around the holidays. Sending a card like this can also let them know that you’d welcome holiday greetings of your own, in case people are worried your grief was too fresh.

4. “As you all know, my sister loved singing. Christmas carols were special favorites of hers. This year as you sing along to your favorite songs, think of her. It’s the best way we can think of to honor her memory.”

Recalling positive memories of your late loved one can be healing during the holidays. Use your holiday card as an opportunity to reminisce. 

Sending Holiday Cards During Times of Loss

Holiday cards are a time-honored tradition. But they can be hard to write when you’re grieving or when someone you know has lost a family member.

Whether you or a loved one is experiencing a loss, you can still reach out during the holiday season. Forging a connection during times of tragedy can actually be incredibly healing. 

If you're looking for more ways to support a loved one who's grieving this holiday season, read our guide on how to cope with grief during the holidays.

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