12 Etiquette Tips for Writing a Proper Sympathy Card


You know how nice it is to receive a sympathy card if someone close to you has died. Sure, texts and Facebook condolence messages are appreciated, but there’s something special about getting a card in the mail. 

When you receive a card, you know that the person who sent it had to:

  1. Go to the store and buy a card.
  2. Write a message. 
  3. Buy a stamp. 
  4. Put the card in the mail.

This takes way more time than writing a “thoughts and prayers” comment on Facebook.

Sending a sympathy card is a nice thing to do, and people who are grieving will appreciate the extra effort you made to send warm wishes to them.

Here are some sympathy card etiquette tips for writing, sending, addressing, and learning how to sign a sympathy card.

1. Choose the Most Appropriate Person to Receive the Card

Sometimes it’s difficult to know who should receive a sympathy card. Here are some scenarios to help guide you on how to address the card.

  • If you only knew the deceased, mail the card to the widow or widower. Add “and family,” so children and grandchildren know you’re thinking of them as well.
  • If you are a friend or an acquaintance of the child or grandchild of the deceased but don’t know other members of the family, send a card to your friend. 
  • If you are close with multiple people in the family who don’t live together, consider sending a card to the funeral home addressed to “The Family of (the deceased).” This way, each member of the family has an opportunity to read your condolences or you could send the card addressed to the family home.

2. Send the Sympathy Card Promptly

There are no expiration dates on sympathy cards, but sending one more than a month after the death may not be the best choice. 

There are exceptions to this rule. For example, if you recently heard about the death of a friend’s parent that happened six months ago, you could send a card with a note apologizing for the delay. Write, “I just heard about the loss of your mother in June. I’m sorry for the delay, but I wanted to extend my sincerest sympathies to you.”

3. Consider Including a Check for a Donation in the Card

Some families will add a line at the bottom of their loved one’s obituary that states: “in lieu of flowers, consider donating to the American Cancer Society in (the deceased’s) name.”

If you do not plan on attending any of the funeral services, it’s appropriate to send your donation in the sympathy card addressed to the mourners. Most would choose to write the check to the American Cancer Society or other charity selected by the family. 

If you know that the family needs help paying for the funeral, you could send a check made out to a member of the family inside the card. In the memo line, consider writing “to help pay for funeral expenses.”

4. Take Care to Choose a Card that Mentions the Correct Relationship 

There are many styles of sympathy cards on the market. If you aren’t paying attention, you could inadvertently grab a card that expresses the wrong type of condolences.

For example, don’t accidentally choose a “sorry for the loss of your mother card” when your friend lost her father. 

5. Take Care in Choosing the Appropriate Religious Card for the Receiver 

You may choose a sympathy card with an appropriate message or image if you know the religious preference of the addressee.

For example, if you are sending a sympathy card to your friend who is Jewish, it would be inappropriate to choose a card that has the image of a cross on it. If your friend has no religious preference, you can select a card that has no mention of heaven or the afterlife. 

Remember, choose the card based on who will receive it. Don’t choose one based on your personal beliefs and preferences. Don’t choose one based on what the deceased would have chosen, either. 

6. Include a Return Address

Always include a return address when you send an item through the mail and make sure it’s clearly written. Adding your return address to the envelope will enable the postal system to return the item to you if the letter is undeliverable. 

Also, the family member in charge of writing thank yous will appreciate not having to do considerable research to find your address. 

Don’t expect to receive a thank you from the family for sending a card. Usually, thank you notes are written for those who send donations, flowers, or food. 

7. Sign Your First and Last Name

Make sure the addressees know it was Sue Jones who sent the card and not Sue Smith. Don’t let other people with the same first name as yours get credit for doing a nice thing like sending a card. 

This is especially important if you send the card through the funeral home. 

8. Include a Personal Message

It’s appropriate to only sign a card with your name before sticking it in the mail but it’s nicer if you take the time to add a few lines about the deceased to the bottom of the card.

When you lose someone you love, you want to hear kind stories about the person. If you have a pleasant memory or interaction with the deceased, or if he or she helped you in any way, make sure you share this story with the members of the family.

9. Consider Attending the Funeral, Especially if You Don’t Send a Card

Some people send sympathy cards instead of attending the funeral. This is appropriate etiquette, especially if you have had little contact with the deceased or the mourners for years. 

Others may send a card and attend the funeral as well. This is appropriate if you have a close relationship with the mourners. 

10. Send a Card to Acquaintances

You don’t have to be best friends with a person to send a sympathy card. It’s appropriate to send a card to a Facebook friend you don’t see often or someone you haven’t seen since high school graduation. Most people appreciate the kindness.

The only time the receipt of your card may not be welcome is if you have an uncomfortable relationship with the family. You probably know if your card would be received warmly or not. Do the right thing in this situation. 

11. Only Include Messages of Condolences in a Sympathy Card 

A sympathy card is not the time to share bits of news happening in your life. It should be used to express sympathy, not to tell the addressee of your recent move or job change.

12. Take Care with the Additional Message You Write on the Card

Make sure any additional sympathy messages you add to the pre-printed card are appropriate.

Avoid using phrases like “I know how you feel,” “You’ll feel better soon,” or “You must be relieved.” These are not kind or helpful sentiments. Consider signing your name to the card if you’re struggling to come up with an appropriate line.

Say It Best

A sympathy card can also be used to tell family members how much the deceased will be missed. As you reflect upon this recent death, you may think about your own end-of-life planning. 

Make things easier for your survivors by starting your end-of-life plans. Your spouse and children will appreciate it if you already shared your choice to be cremated and have your ashes scattered on your family farm. Your family will be happy that you had already picked out the music for your service and the scripture you want to have read.

Pre-planning your funeral is one of the best gifts you can give to those you love. Start planning your funeral services today.

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