How to Write a Polite Condolence Email + 5 Examples

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Etiquette is a set of rules and customs designed to define behavioral expectations in polite society. We all use etiquette every day, whether by using proper table manners or saying thank you when someone opens a door for you. 

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But etiquette isn’t just about making day-to-day life more civilized; it can also guide us through our interactions around death. For example, there are societal expectations around what kind of clothes people should wear to a funeral. And there are also expectations about the right words to say - and the correct manner to convey them - when expressing condolences. Today, we’ll delve into the etiquette surrounding condolence emails.

Is It OK to Write a Condolence Email?

As technology has evolved and become more readily accessible, it has changed how we communicate. Forty years ago, a letter was your only option if you wanted to express sympathy. Now, between texting and email, we have several alternative ways to get in touch with our loved ones. 

Most etiquette experts have agreed that sending condolences in email rather than a card is not the faux pas it would have been just ten or twenty years ago. But overall, they tend to feel like sending a card or a letter is both more formal and more personal, and thus should always be your first resort. 

However, even etiquette sticklers can acknowledge that there are situations when a condolence email is the best option. More and more people are building close interpersonal relationships with people they’ve met online. These friendships can be deep and meaningful, even if the parties have never met in person. If one of these virtual friends suffers a loss, sending online condolences in keeping with your relationship makes sense. 

Sending a condolence email may also be the most appropriate route if you don’t know the recipient well or consider them to be more of an acquaintance. This might include a work client or former professor. 

What Should You Say (Or Not Say) in a Condolence Email?

When sending a condolence message, it’s best to strive for brevity. People who are grieving don’t necessarily have the time or mental energy to read long letters. 

There are some topics that are generally off-limits in a sympathy email. They include:

  • Talking about religion (unless you are familiar with the recipient’s religious beliefs and feel very certain that they’ll take comfort in their faith).
  • Saying the deceased is “in a better place”. Even if the recipient does believe in the afterlife, it’s an overdone saying that can feel trite and unhelpful.
  • Saying you understand what the deceased is going through. Loss is unique to each individual, so there is really no way we can understand how someone else is feeling, even if we’ve been in a similar situation. It can also come off as dismissive. 

Steps for Writing a Condolence Email

Now that we’ve talked about what a condolence email should contain and when it is appropriate to send, it’s time to get into specifics. The following guide will steer you through the steps you should follow when penning a sympathy email.

Step 1: Choose an appropriate subject line

The subject line of any email is essential because it grabs the recipient’s attention. It’s especially important to choose the right subject line when dealing with sensitive matters so the person who receives it isn’t blindsided. Be straightforward in your email header by typing something like, “My Deepest Condolences.” This way, the person who receives your email has time to prepare for what’s inside. See the next section for some other sample email headers along this vein. 

Step 2: Select the right salutation and sign off

A condolence email is like any other form of written communication. The way you address the recipient will be defined by the type of relationship you have with them. If you’re writing to your boss, you might take a more formal approach than you would when writing to an online friend. Paying attention to your tone will also be necessary when ending your email later.

Step 3: Open by expressing your condolences

Often, people feel like they need to build up to expressing their condolences. But it’s best to rip the bandaid off. This email aims to reach out with sympathy, so don’t draw it out.  

Step 4: Don’t tiptoe around the matter

Often, people feel the need to speak euphemistically about death or gloss over it. It's okay to get specific. In fact, it's preferable. An example of this premise would be saying, "I was sorry to hear about the loss of your mother," instead of, "I know you're going through something personal."


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Step 5: Speak about the deceased, if possible

People often avoid talking about them to their loved ones when someone dies. They may worry that bringing up specifics about the deceased is too painful. But by and large, people tend to enjoy hearing about their late loved ones. It helps them ensure that their memory is being kept alive. 

If you knew the deceased, you could share a specific memory about them. “I really enjoyed spending time with your wife at the company picnic last year. She was such a smart and interesting person.”

Even if you didn’t know the deceased, you may still be able to talk about them. “I’ve always enjoyed hearing your stories about your grandfather. Even though I never met him, I felt I got to see him through your eyes.”

Step 6: Make a concrete offer to help

Many people will include a message in their condolence email along the lines of “Let me know if I can help you with anything.” While this seems like a kind thing to say, it can run the risk of sounding like a meaningless platitude. It also burdens the grieving person to reach out and ask for help. 

Making a specific offer of assistance is a lot more helpful and comforting. If you’re writing to a coworker, you might say, “Please don’t feel like you need to rush back into the office. I’m happy to keep covering client communication for as long as you need.” For a friend, you might say, “I’d love to send you dinner some night soon, so you don’t have to worry about cooking. Just let me know when you’re ready, and I’ll order something from a local restaurant you like.”

Step 7: Don’t Worry If You Don’t Get a Response

People going through a loss are usually inundated with notes of support. Still, they often don’t have the time or emotional energy to respond to every message right away. If you don’t hear back, you may feel the need to follow up and make sure they got your email. Resist that impulse, and remember that responding to condolences may just be too overwhelming right now. 

Condolence Email Subject Line Examples

As we mentioned earlier, selecting the right subject line for a condolences email is the best way to make a good impression. Here are some suggestions for appropriate email subject lines:

  • Sending You Sympathy
  • With Sympathy
  • Thinking of You
  • Sincerest Condolences
  • With Deep Sorrow for Your Loss

Condolence Email Examples

Even when you see all the steps broken down, you might still struggle with the specifics of what to say in a condolences email. We’ve put together some samples of the best condolence emails to help guide you:

For the loss of a parent or grandparent

Subject Line: Thinking of You 

Dear Sam,

I just wanted to reach out and express my condolences to you after the loss of your grandma. While I never met Mimi, I felt like I got to know her through your Facebook posts about the adventures you shared. I know she took you in and raised you as a child, and it’s so beautiful that you were her caretaker for the last years of her life. 

I know it must be overwhelming trying to plan for Mimi’s memorial service right now. Please let me know if I can help you by writing the program or putting together a slideshow. Even if you just need to vent, I’m here for you.

All my love,

Margo

For the loss of a sibling

Subject Line: Sending Sincere Condolences

Dear Bob,

I was so sorry to hear about the passing of your brother, Bud. I know how close the two of you were, and this must be an exceptionally painful time for you. I only got to see Bud at holiday dinners, but I always enjoyed sitting with him and hearing about the mischief you got into together growing up. 

Once you’re feeling up to it, I’d love to take you out for breakfast and hear more stories about Bud. I’ll be reaching out to check in on you again soon.

Keeping you in my heart,

Sarah

For the loss of a partner or spouse

Subject Line: With Deep Sorrow for Your Loss

Dear Professor Stanton,

I’m writing to express my condolences regarding the recent passing of your wife. When you mentioned her illness in class, we hoped that she’d pull through. It was so commendable for you to take a leave of absence to care for her. 

You’ve been more than just a teacher to me over the years - you’ve also become my mentor. I wanted you to know that I’m here to support you the way you’ve always supported me.

Sincerely,

Rebecca James

For the loss of a friend

Subject Line: Sending You Sympathy

Dear Ellen,

I was heartbroken to hear about Susan’s unexpected passing. The two of you were inseparable growing up, and I know your friendship only deepened over the years. Because I was so much older, I didn’t get to spend much time with you both. But I always thought of Susan as a bonus sister because you two were such a package deal. 

I have several photos of the two of you from over the years. Next month, I’ll be coming to town, and I’d be happy to pass them along to you if you’d like.

Love you,

Billy

For the loss of a child

Subject Line: Sincerest Condolences

Dear Mark,

I wanted to reach out and let you know how sorry I am for the recent passing of your son. There’s no loss more profound than that of a child. 

Joey was such a bright light in the world. I always enjoyed seeing new pictures of him in your office. Even in photos, it’s clear how much you adored each other.  

You’re such a conscientious coworker that I’m afraid you’re worrying about what’s going on with your clients. Please take all the time you need to heal and grieve: we have things well in hand.

All the best,

Thomas Morgan

Changing With the Times

In the 1920s, the Hallmark corporation expanded its greeting card selection to include pre-printed sympathy cards. There was likely some pushback to that concept back then. At least some people probably thought pre-printed cards were too impersonal after years of writing their own condolence messages. But with time, sympathy cards became more widely accepted. Sending a condolence email may feel strange to people accustomed to sending physical cards. But in the right circumstances, a polite condolence email can absolutely be appropriate. 

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