Sympathy Card Etiquette: What, When & How to Send

Updated

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. 

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When you receive a card, you know that the person who sent it had to go to the store and buy a card, write a message, buy a stamp, and 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.

Who Should You Send a Sympathy Card To?

The short answer to this question is that it is appropriate to send a sympathy card to anyone who is grieving. However, we know you probably aren’t satisfied with this answer. 

Consider sending a sympathy card to the:

  • Spouse or partner of the deceased
  • Parents of the deceased
  • Children of the deceased
  • Siblings of the deceased
  • Grandchildren of the deceased

If you know the entire family, you may consider sending separate cards to all involved. If you only wish to send one card, mail it to the deceased’s home address (or to the spouse or parents of the deceased). You can address it to the individuals’ names or “The Family of Bob Smith.” You can also send a card to the family in care of the funeral home serving the family. 

If you knew the deceased well but didn’t know the family, you can send a card to the spouse, parents, or “family of” the deceased.

If you are friends with someone who recently lost a parent, but you don’t know the rest of the family, send a card to your friend.

You may also consider sending a card to a close friend of the deceased. 

Some send sympathy cards to close family and friends grieving a loss, but others view sending sympathy cards as a ministry. They may send cards to people they don’t know well, such as people who suffered a loss in the community or Facebook acquaintances. 

When Should You Send a Sympathy Card?

While there is no expiration date on expressing sympathy, try to send a message within several weeks of the death. However, sending the card a month late would not be out of line. 

It is best to send a sympathy card as soon as you hear about the death. However, even those with good intentions may struggle to follow through with this task. 

If you are late sending a sympathy card, take care of the address you use. For example, sending the card to the deceased’s home address may be problematic if no one from the family is staying at this residence. Likewise, sending the card to the funeral home may delay the family from receiving it, as it will need to be forwarded to a home address.

Perhaps you recently discovered that someone close to you lost a loved one months ago. If this describes your situation, send a card with a note explaining that you had just heard about the tragedy and wished to offer your condolences.

If you have missed that deadline, you may consider sending a message to your friend on another difficult day – such as the deceased’s birthday, the anniversary of their death, or a significant holiday. Your friend will feel comforted knowing that you are thinking of them on this challenging day. Chances are, they may not receive any cards or messages from others on those difficult days. Consider marking these dates on your calendar so you don’t forget to acknowledge them.

Should You Include Money, Donation, or a Gift in a Sympathy Card?

People who participate in online discussion boards disagree on whether it is appropriate to include money, donations, or gifts in a sympathy card. Here are some thoughts on the matter that might help you decide what is best for your situation.

Typically, families choose the non-profit groups or charities that were important to the deceased. Then, the funeral home staff gathers and records donations to the charities for the family. The staff then provides a list of donors to the family members so that the family can write thank you notes to those who donated to the non-profit groups.

If you are attending the funeral services and would like to donate to the charity of choice, look for a staff member to help you complete this process. 

If you aren’t attending the funeral, look for a link on the memorial website or search for the non-profit group online so that you can make your donation. Still, some donors will mail a check to the funeral home serving the family and give instructions on where the money goes.

However, some families suffer extreme financial difficulty following the loss of a loved one. In those cases, it is appropriate to send money directly to the family (or to the family in care of the funeral home). This money could be spent on funeral or living expenses, and you may include it in the sympathy card.

If you are close to the family and know that they need financial help, you may consider asking their permission to set up a Go Fund Me page. 

How Do You Address a Sympathy Card?

As we mentioned in a previous section of this article, there are various ways to approach addressing a sympathy card. Here are some thoughts on the subject.

If you knew the deceased and their family, and the family members lived in different households, consider sending a card to the spouse or partner of the deceased addressed to “The Family of (Name of the Deceased).” 

However, if you are close to each family member, you might consider sending separate cards to each household. This means you would send one card to the person's spouse or partner and one to each child.

If you didn’t know any family members and only knew the deceased, consider sending a card to the surviving partner or spouse, parent, or child. If you aren’t sure of the names of these individuals, address the card to “The Family of (Name of the Deceased).”

The most important thing to remember is not to leave a family member out when sending a sympathy card. If you include the children’s names, make sure they are all listed. 

If you don’t have the addresses of the deceased’s family members, you can send the card to the funeral home caring for the family. You could also address the card to the home address of the deceased. Both of these addresses should only be used soon after the death.

Be aware that sympathy cards are designed for different purposes and audiences. Read the card carefully before you send it. For example, some cards are written with a Christian audience in mind, so they would not be appropriate for a Jewish family. Other cards are written for the “death of a father,” so sending to a spouse wouldn’t be appropriate.

What Should You Say or Not Say in a Sympathy Card?

You may not have a lot of practice sending sympathy cards. Sometimes, the circumstances surrounding a death are so tragic and shocking that it’s hard to say the right words. Most etiquette guides advise people to keep it simple. Sometimes, there are no appropriate words.

Here are some things to write in a sympathy card:

  • We are thinking of you during this difficult time.
  • We are praying for you and your family.
  • May God be with you during this difficult time.
  • We are so sorry for your loss.
  • I am going to miss her too!
  • There are no words.
  • Please accept our sincerest condolences.
  • I’m sorry I couldn’t attend the funeral. 
  • My heart goes out to you and your family.
  • He was a wonderful man! 
  • I hope the memories you have of Bob give you solace in the coming days.
  • We are wishing you comfort and peace.
  • I was so sorry to hear about Jeff’s passing. He will be missed!
  • I am thinking of you as you celebrate Jane’s beautiful life. She lived it well!
  • Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. – Matthew 5:4
  • The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. – Psalm 34:18

Here are words to AVOID when writing in a sympathy card:

  • I know how you feel!
  • At least he’s no longer in pain.
  • It’s for the best.
  • You’ll feel better soon.
  • You’ll find someone else.
  • You should . . . 
  • Try to stay positive.
  • Everything happens for a reason.
  • It could have been worse.
  • At least you have other children.

Steps for Sending a Proper Sympathy Card

Here are some steps for writing, sending, addressing, and learning 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 addressing 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 family members, 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 family member 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. For example, 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 family member inside the card. In the memo line, consider writing “to help pay for funeral expenses.”

4. Choose a card that mentions the correct relationship

There are many styles of sympathy cards on the market. Unfortunately, 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. Choose an appropriate message and image

Carefully determine the appropriate message or image depending on the religious preference of the addressee.

For example, if you are sending a sympathy card to your Jewish friend, it would be inappropriate to choose a card with the image of a cross on it. However, 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. Likewise, don’t choose one based on what the deceased would have chosen. 

6. Include a return address

When you send an item through the mail, always include a return address 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 Sue Jones 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 they helped you, make sure you share this story with the family members.

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 often see 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 will be received warmly or not. Do the right thing in this situation. 

11. Only include messages of condolences

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 

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. Instead, consider signing your name to the card if you struggle to develop an appropriate line.

Say It Best

A sympathy card can also tell family members how much the deceased will be missed. Finally, 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. In addition, your family will be happy that you have 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. So start planning your funeral services today.

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