Condolence vs. Sympathy: What’s the Difference?

Updated

When a friend, acquaintance, or loved one passes away, you’re likely to hear the words “condolence” and “sympathy” spoken frequently. Both of these words are used to talk about the way messages of sorrow and comfort are sent to loved ones and friends of the deceased. 

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Though both words are often used interchangeably, they do carry slightly different meanings. Understanding the differences between these two words can be helpful when speaking with friends and loved ones or receiving messages from those you know.

Overview: Condolences vs. Sympathy

The words “condolences” and “sympathy” are often used interchangeably when it comes to messages regarding the death of a loved one or pet. Though they both generally mean the same thing, there are a few differences.

“Condolence” is an expression of sympathy as a whole, whereas “sympathy” is the feeling of sorrow you experience when learning of a death that impacts someone you know. While you send condolences or messages of sympathy, your sympathy message should highlight your feeling of sorrow for the person’s loss.

Though there are nuanced differences between these two words, we’d encourage you to not let these linguistic differences hold you back from sending a message to someone you know. Whether you call it sympathy or condolences, a person who is grieving the loss of a loved one or pet will just be glad to receive your message. They won’t care which of the two words you use when sending a message their way.

What’s a Condolence?

A condolence is a message of sympathy that expresses your sorrow and concern after learning of someone’s death. Condolences can be sent to a family even if you did not know the person who passed as long as you know the family affected. 

Condolences are a way to show someone that they are being thought of and the message you send should help them know that they are not all alone in their grief and pain.

Examples of condolences

Condolences can be elaborate and well thought-out or as simple as saying sorry for your loss. Here are several examples of condolences you can use in a card or message.

“Sidney, your mom was the most joyful person I ever knew. She was a wonderful person and an amazing friend. I’ll miss her dearly. Wish I could give you a hug, sweet girl. Our family is praying for yours.”

“Jackson Family, the whole office would like to express how deeply sorry we are to hear of Janie’s passing. Though we only got to meet her at last year’s office party, her presence, kindness, and gentle demeanor will never be forgotten.”

“Derek, I am so sorry to hear about the loss of your dog, Cowboy. I know how much joy he brought you, and I’m sure he’ll be waiting to see you again at the Rainbow Bridge.”

What Does Sympathy Mean?

There are several definitions for “sympathy,” but the one most applicable to this article is the following from Webster’s Dictionary. According to Webster, the first definition for “sympathy” is “the feeling that you care about and are sorry about someone else's trouble, grief, misfortune, etc.” 

When you learn that your friend’s husband passed away, a relative’s companion animal died, or a loved one’s best friend died, you experience sorrow for the pain your friend or loved one is experiencing. You care about their loss or hardship and you hurt with them. 

A message of sympathy is meant to express how sorry you are for their loss and to help them know that they’re not alone in their pain and grief. You’re telling them that you feel their loss, too.

Examples of sympathy messages

Here are several examples of sympathy messages that you can use in a card, an email, or a text message.

“Veronica, my heart hurts with yours at the loss of your sweet Star. She was the most gentle horse I’ve ever met, and my kids and I will miss seeing her at your ranch.”

“Aunt Jennie, when I learned of Diane’s passing, I couldn’t believe it. You two have been best friends forever. It’s so hard to come to terms with her passing. She’s always been like another aunt to me. I’ll miss her deeply.”

“Bob, we are so sorry to hear of Glenda’s passing. She was a wonderful woman and will be missed by all of us at the Knitting and Baking Club.”

When Should You Use Sympathy vs. Condolence?

As you see from this article, the two words can almost be used interchangeably without much issue. There are circumstances, however, when one should be used over the other to communicate the best meaning. Here are several examples of when each word should be used.

When to use “sympathy”

You want to use the word sympathy when speaking about the feelings you have for the family or friends who experience loss. 

In general conversation

“I want to send a message of sympathy to let them know they’re not alone.”

“Rhonda told me that she started crying when she received my words of sympathy in the mail.”

In a card

“Please accept my deepest sympathy for your loss.”

“Our whole office joins with you in sympathy over the loss of your husband. He will be dearly missed.”

On social media

“Please share messages of sympathy in response to this post and they will be shared with the Dubois Family.”

“The Lakes Family want to share their heartfelt gratitude for the many messages of sympathy they’ve received from their family and friends.”

When to use “condolence”

Because the word “condolence” means “expression of sympathy,” you want to use this word when talking about sympathy messages as a whole.

In general conversation

“Our office sent flowers and condolences to the family.”

“I’m glad to know she received our condolences since we couldn’t attend the funeral in person.”

In a card

“Please accept our condolences. The whole office will miss your husband greatly.”

“Kathy, my husband and I want to send our condolences for the loss of your precious kitty. We know she meant the world to you and was such a comfort after Tom’s passing.”

On social media

“Please send any condolences to the funeral home at the address below…”

“Our family wants to thank you all for the many condolences and messages of sympathy that were messaged, texted, and mailed to us after our father’s passing.”

Sympathy vs. Condolences: 3 Difference to Note

In addition to these two words having slightly different meanings, there are a few distinctions to note when using them in conversion or writing. Here are several ways these two words differ.

Sympathy is used when referring to gifts 

If you want to send a gift to a grieving loved one, friend, or family member, what you’re looking to do is send a sympathy gift. This is a gift that is intended to help the recipient feel like they’re not alone in grieving their loved one.

Pro tip: If you’re unsure of what to send, you can read through our list of sympathy gift ideas or search for “sympathy gift ideas” online.

Condolence is used when referring to a sent message

This difference goes back to the definition of each word. Since “condolence” refers to an expression of sympathy, this word is often used when talking about sending a message in a way that the word “sympathy” is not. 

For example, you might say, “I’m responsible for sending condolences from our office to the Jones Family,” but you would not say, “I’m responsible for sending sympathy from our office to the Jones Family.” 

Condolence is often used in the plural but sympathy is not

Since the word “condolence” refers to a message of sympathy, it often gets used in the plural to refer to more than one message. An example of this would be:

“Please accept our condolences” or “We sent condolences to her office after learning of her mother’s passing.”

However, you would not use “sympathy” in the same way. The reason for this is that the word sympathy refers to a feeling of sorrow you have for someone, whereas the word “sympathies” refers more to a tendency toward approval of a movement or ideology. Here’s an example of each.

Sympathy: “I was so grateful to receive her messages of sympathy after my mother’s passing.”

Sympathies: “Blacklisting in Hollywood occurred due to suspicions of actor’s communist sympathies.”

Sharing Condolences and Messages of Sympathy

These two words do have different meanings and can be used better in certain situations. However, when it comes to sharing a message of love and compassion in light of someone’s loss, the most important thing to write is a message that comes from the heart. 

No one will nitpick your grammar, message, or use of these two words when they’re grieving the loss of a loved one, friend, or pet. What will mean the most is that you took the time to write a message that helped them feel a little less alone in their loss and grief.

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