It seems like everyone knows how difficult it is to express condolences to someone who is grieving. Not as many people seem to talk about how challenging it can be to know how to respond to condolences.
You might feel the need to brush them away with an “It’s okay” when everything is about as far away from okay as it could possibly be.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- How to Construct a Good 'Thank you for your Condolences' Message
- Ideas on How to
- Ideas on How to Respond in Person
But just like you would tell someone not to overthink it when it comes to expressing condolences, be kind to yourself when you accept them.
Death might make you feel a little awkward and uncomfortable and that’s okay — give yourself a break. But because that’s easier said than done, here are some tips to help you respond to condolences under the circumstances.
You may think that just saying “thank you” is wholly inadequate when you’re responding to condolences. In truth, sometimes messages that are short, simple, and sweet are the best possible response.
You may have a lot of people to respond to, and pressuring yourself to write a lengthy note to each person is going to make a difficult task that much harder. A sympathy thank you note that’s a few sentences long is more than sufficient and will make an emotional task less draining.
The main components your card should contain are the “thank you” part, along with a personalized element. You don’t necessarily have to use the words “thank you,” though they are perfectly appropriate.
For example, you could say, “Thank you so much for the lovely flower arrangement you had sent to the funeral,” or you could say, “We appreciate you traveling to the funeral, and your sympathy note meant a lot to us.” Both of those statements include a “thank you” element — one is just more overt.
Make the message a little more specific and reference specific events or relationships.
For example, you could say, “Dad always said he never had more fun than he did that summer we went and stayed at your lake house.”
You could also say, “Mom’s favorite part of the holiday season was when you dropped off a pitcher of your homemade eggnog.”
These are specific statements that evoke a special memory or event and demonstrate the role these people played in your family.
You can use a more formal introduction to people you don’t know well when you send a thank-you note. (“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Smith”), or a more casual introduction to people you’re on a first-name basis with (“Dear Ralph and Laura”).
You can sign a card on behalf of the whole family (“The Jones family”) or yourself (“Katie Green (daughter of Paul Jones).” These are all elements of personalization that vary depending on your relationship with the message recipient.
Share your final wishes, just in case.
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Anything less than sending a handwritten thank you card to someone’s home would be considered unthinkable in the past. These days, you may not even know someone’s street address to have a card like that delivered, though you could always use an online address search.
Emailing a thank you card may seem too informal to people of a certain age, but there are plenty of reasons why the practice is perfectly acceptable.
Going paper-free and relying less on trucks to deliver things is an environmentally-sound practice. You can always be reasonably certain that an email had arrived with its intended recipient. If they sent you a condolence email in the first place, it's acceptable to respond to the original email, too. And most importantly, it simplifies a complicated process for someone who is still grieving.
You can also use an e-card to thank people for other ways they gave you concrete assistance and support while you were grieving. Let’s be real: sometimes you don’t get around to sending thank you cards until a month or more has elapsed.
And unless you took great notes, you may not be able to remember what words of condolences people expressed to you at the funeral or even if they were able to attend the funeral. You might have a difficult time processing and retaining information during times of trauma.
Here are a few responses you can use:
- “Thank you for organizing a meal train after Dad passed away. Not having to worry about shopping or cooking in the days surrounding the funeral was a huge relief.”
- “I appreciate your kindness when you had the girls over to your house after their dad died. I needed the space to grieve him on my own.”
- “It was kind of you to come to Mom’s funeral. I know you hadn’t seen each other in years, but she always spoke highly of you. You were her favorite friend of mine.”
- “Thank you for the sympathy card you sent my family. We also received word that you made a donation to my sister’s favorite charity in her memory, which was so thoughtful.”
- “Thank you for the beautiful letter you wrote full of stories about Dad. I had never heard some of them, and it was special learning something new about his life.”
- “The flower arrangement you sent to my mother’s funeral was so lovely. Lilies were her favorite flowers, and I know she would have appreciated you remembering that about her.”
- “Thank you so much for arranging a grocery delivery to my house. It was so nice not to have to worry about going to the store, and the chocolates and the bottle of wine were a thoughtful gesture.”
Being able to respond in writing to someone’s offer of condolences is great because it gives you time to choose the perfect words and gives you space to take a break if you become too emotional.
But there will be times when you’ll need to respond to people’s condolences in person, whether that’s at a funeral or wake, or after running into someone on the street for the first time since a loved one’s passing.
Some people will practice things to say ahead of time in the event that they are faced with making in-person responses to condolences. It’s often a good idea to speak from the heart and trust that you’ll say the right thing.
Even if you don’t, the person you’re responding to will often hear the intent behind what you want to say.
- “Thank you so much for coming out today. We appreciate how supportive the whole office has been since Dad’s passing. We know now why he called you his work family.”
- “It means a lot to us that you made it to Mom’s memorial service. I know it’s a long drive for you, and your presence is so appreciated.”
- “I remember how much fun you and my brother used to have when you were kids. It means a lot that you came to the funeral.”
- “I’m sorry you weren’t able to make it to Mom’s memorial service. I know how much you wanted to be there. She would have completely understood, too.”
- “I’m so glad I ran into you. Unfortunately, it’s taken me longer than I hoped to send out thank yous. I’ve been wanting to thank you for the gorgeous flowers.”
- “You were so kind to me while I was recovering physically and emotionally from my miscarriage. I’ll never be the same, but your friendship made this time much more bearable.”
- “I’m sorry I didn’t get the chance to speak to you at Grandma’s funeral. It would have meant so much to her that you made the effort to come out.”
Best Practices for Responses to Online or In-Person Condolences
It can be hard to find the right words both to give condolences and receive them, but keep in mind that we are often our own harshest critics. It’s okay if you can’t find the perfect words to thank someone for being there for you.
Be sure to approach people with honesty and candor and trust that they know you well enough to see what’s in your heart. Finally, remember that saying thank you may not seem like enough but sincere gratitude can make those simple words speak volumes.