When a friend or acquaintance suffers the loss of a loved one, it’s hard to know what to say. Expressing condolences is always a challenge because no matter what you say it never seems like enough. If you knew the deceased, it’s a little easier to come up with the right sympathy messages.
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In that case, you at least have personal experiences to draw from. If you didn’t know the deceased though, you can still add a personalized touch to a condolence letter. Read on for some tips on how to compose a thoughtful condolence note.
We’ve also provided samples of condolence letters for inspiration as you write your own.
6 Steps for Writing a Condolence Letter
Having guidelines to follow can be a great help when it comes to crafting a condolence letter. Here are some things you should be sure to include in yours.
1. Write your note by hand if possible
There’s something much more meaningful about writing a letter by hand and sending it via mail. An email or typed and printed letter can feel cold and impersonal.
Taking the time to pick out a nice card or piece of stationery and putting pen to paper is a thoughtful gesture.
2. Keep your note prompt and brief
People who are grieving appreciate getting condolence letters. But, they may not have the emotional energy to read several pages worth of writing. A paragraph or two is more than enough. Whenever possible try to send it in the three days following the death of the person.
Even if it is difficult for you to write something, do your best. Sending it quickly is important. Putting it off and sending it a month or two later will make it seem like it was a low priority. You can always send a follow-up note a few months later just to let them know you’re still thinking of them.
3. Refer to the deceased by name
When someone dies, people sometimes feel like they have to shy away from mentioning them by name. They don’t want to bring pain to the deceased’s loved ones.
So they end up avoiding using the deceased’s name entirely. In truth, that can end up causing loved ones more pain. Most people want to talk about and hear about their loved ones, even if it hurts.
4. Speak about the deceased in specific terms
People might also skirt around mentioning specific details of the deceased. But we want to be reminded of the positive things about our loved ones after they die. If you can, list some specific attributes of the deceased. Even if you didn’t know them, you likely heard about them. You can write about how supportive they were, or how talented they were.
If you did know them, you could also recount a favorite memory of them. Adding these personal details will make your condolence letter feel more special. And it allows those grieving to see how important their loved one was to others.
5. Express your condolences in a way that’s straightforward but restrained
It’s okay to be sad that someone you know has died. Even if you didn’t know the deceased well, you’ll likely feel sympathy for your friend or loved one.
But you want to make sure you’re not doing it in a way that overshadows the feelings of the deceased’s family and friends. Try to shy away from using words like “heartbroken” or “devastated”. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss,” is effective and sincere without being overdramatic.
6. Offer specific help
Almost everyone has said to a grieving friend, “Please let me know if I can do anything.” This sounds like a nice offer on the surface, but you’re putting the bereaved in the position of having to ask for help. They may feel uncomfortable approaching you for something specific. Or they might ask you for help with something you can’t do. It may also be hard to tell who wants to help, versus who is saying that just to have something to say.
Instead, offer them specific things that you are comfortable doing for them. Certain favors, like taking their kids for some time during the weekend or dropping off some food, are good options. These are tangible offers of help that the bereaved can accept.
Condolence Letter Examples
Your condolence letters will look different depending on who you send it to. Here are some sample condolence letters for a variety of occasions.
Informal condolence letter example
I was sorry to hear about your father passing away. I know he had been sick for a while, but our whole family was hoping he’d pull through. I lost my father last year, but I know that doesn’t mean I know what you’re going through.
Every relationship is different, and every loss we suffer is unique to us. Still, I hope you know that I’m always here to listen if you want to talk. And if you’re not up for talking that’s okay too. I’ll bring over a six-pack and we can watch the hockey game together.
I only met your dad a few times, but I know he was so proud of you. He was so excited about your recent promotion. He couldn’t stop talking about you and everything you have achieved when I talked with him at your Labor Day barbecue.
Again, I’m so sorry for your loss.
Formal condolence letter example
Dear Mr. Taylor,
I was sorry to hear about the loss of your brother. It’s so difficult to lose a family member. While I never met Levi, I do know the two of you were very close. I do not doubt that his death is very hard for you and the rest of your family.
I just wanted you to know that you’re in my thoughts. I’m sure you have a lot on your plate right now. I’ll reach out in a few weeks to see if there’s anything I can help you with. In the meantime, I’ll be keeping you in my heart.
Sample condolence letter to a friend
I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s passing. Nina was a very special woman. I have such fond memories of growing up and spending the night at your house. My mother wasn’t around much growing up, and yours really took me under her wing.
She always tried to include me in special events like shopping for prom dresses and birthday celebrations. I still remember the cake she baked for my 21st birthday. Her love meant more to me than I could ever express.
It means so much to me that now our little girls are friends, too. I know you want to keep Sarah close to you right now. But if there’s ever a time you need a little space to yourself, just say the word. I’ll come to pick her up and she can spend the night with Lucy at my house. I’m going to call you next weekend too and see if you two are up for a playdate at the park.
I love you.
Sample condolence letter to a family member
Dear Aunt Cathy,
I am so sorry to hear that Uncle Brad has passed away. He fought hard against his cancer diagnosis. No matter how sick he felt, I never heard him complain or act defeated. That was so in-character for him. He was always committed to tackling whatever was in his path. I never met anyone with more perseverance.
I’m going to miss so many things about him, from his amazing holiday meals to his terrible jokes. I know that doesn’t hold a candle to how much you miss him.
I’m coming over next week with Mom, and I can’t wait to see you and give you a big hug. I just wanted to send this note first to let you know I’m thinking of you.
Sample condolence letter to a colleague
I’m sorry to hear that Mary passed away. I remember meeting her last year at the company Christmas party. She was so warm and kind. I enjoyed getting to talk to her. The two of you had such a special relationship.
I wanted to let you know not to worry about taking some time off from work. I’m happy to check in with your clients and answer their questions until you’re able to get back to the office. Just take your time healing and spend some time with the kids. We’ll be here when you’re ready to come back.
Again, I’m incredibly sorry for your loss.
Sample condolence letter from an organization
Dear Mrs. Swanson,
I’m writing on behalf of the team at Sheffield Industries to express our condolences for the loss of your husband. Tyrone was more than just a valued member of our team. He was the heart and soul of this office. Whenever anyone needed something, whether it was help with work or to talk through something personal, he was always there.
In the spirit of Tyrone, we want to assure you that we’ll always consider you and your children part of the Sheffield family. Whatever you need, we will help in any way we can. It’s the very least we can do.
Our condolences for this tragic loss.
Steps to Craft the Perfect Condolence Letter
The most important thing to remember when it comes to expressing your condolences is to speak from the heart. Before you sit down to write it, take a few moments to think about who you’re writing about. If you didn’t know the deceased personally, reflect instead on the way their loved ones spoke about them. Think of the things you admired or the good qualities you heard about them. If you did know them, try to share a special memory or moment that their loved one might not know.
Whatever you write, share it with honesty and care. Ultimately, you want to bring comfort to the bereaved. Being kind about their loved one is the best way to achieve that goal.