When someone you care about is grieving a death, condolence letters can be a kind and sympathetic way to let them know they are in your thoughts without being too intrusive during such a sensitive time. Many individuals process grief over a period of time that is full of emotion, good days and bad days, times of laughter and times of tears, and spans when they would like to be alone versus spans they would like to be surrounded by others. Learning how to write a condolence letter is an excellent way to reach out to someone who has just lost a loved one.
A proper condolence letter is many things. First and foremost, it is thoughtful and shows others that they are in your heart during their most challenging time. This can be particularly meaningful to a person who has lost someone close to them. Condolence letters offer thoughts and prayers, kind words, and words of encouragement. Additionally, as a person often receives a condolence letter when they are alone and in private, it can take much of the pressure to immediately respond off of a grieving individual.
A person can read and process a condolence letter in their own time. They can read a portion and stop if they are feeling overwhelmed, returning to the letter later when they again feel well. Or, they can read it several times over in one sitting, taking in all of the words and memories you have to share as they carefully cherish each sentence.
Factors That Impact a Condolence Letter
Determining how to write a condolence letter will depend on several factors. First, the contents will vary based on how close you are with the person to whom you are writing. Are they a close friend or a passing acquaintance at work? Additionally, a condolence letter may differ depending on your relationship with the person who has passed. Are you expressing well wishes for the family members of someone you knew very well, or are you writing a letter expressing sympathy over the passing of a friend’s loved one–perhaps a person you have never met?
Lastly, you should consider the recipient of the condolence letter. Will this be a private letter, sure to never be shared between anyone except yourself and the person you are writing, or will this letter be shared publicly at a celebration of life or funeral service? Once you carefully think about each of these elements, you can begin to draft a proper letter following the guide below.
The Best Way to Start a Condolence Letter
How you start a condolence letter will largely depend on your relationship with the person to whom you are writing. You should always address the recipient by name immediately, but the formality of the greeting is at your discretion. As a general rule, the less you know a person, the more formal you should be when addressing them.
For example, if you are writing to a person you have never met to express your sadness over the passing of a family member with whom you knew well, you may choose to start the letter with “Dear [Recipient Name],” or “To the Family of [Name of the Deceased].” Alternately, if you are writing to a person you know well, you may choose to open your condolence letter with the greeting of “To My Dearest [Recipient Name],” or simply “[Recipient Name]-”
After your opening greeting, you should make the reason you are writing clear. When writing to a person you do not know or do not know well, it is best to identify yourself as well as your relationship to their loved one. For example, you may open your letter with the line, “My name is [Your Name] and [Name of the Deceased] was a dear [Friend/Coworker/Etc.] of mine.”
If you are writing to someone you do know well, there is no need to identify yourself, however, you should still make the purpose of the letter clear. Opening with a brief line such as “I am writing to express my deep condolences for the loss of your [Father/Mother/Sister/Etc.]” or “I am so sorry to hear of [Name of the Deceased]’s passing.”
Once you have the start of your condolence letter, you can then move on to expressing your sympathies and sharing kind words in the body of the text.
How Do You Address the Family?
Writing to a person or family you do not know well can be nerve-wracking. You know that the family is consumed with grief and facing what is likely a particularly challenging time as they process the loss of their loved one. While you want to express your sympathies, you also want to be sure that you remain tactful, respectful and that you do not overstep your bounds. It is important to realize that the family has just lost someone very close to them.
Generally, it is best to send a letter of condolence within a few weeks of the family member’s death. Always send the note via traditional mail service, and never by e-mail or social media. However, many funeral homes now offer online guest books where friends can write digital notes for the family to read at a later time. Should the family have an online guest book, this is the perfect place and forum for you to leave a note. Remember that these books are often viewed by the entire family, and are sometimes viewable to the public, so you should not include any intimate details or stories you would not want strangers to know.
If you are writing a traditional letter to the family of a loved one, follow the format mentioned above. If you have never met them before, or do not know them well, use a formal greeting, introduce yourself and explain your relationship to their loved one, and immediately express your sympathies.
What to Say in a Condolence Letter
When someone you love is processing a death, condolence letters may help them remember that there are people who care about them and let them know that they are not alone. Additionally, when someone you know passes, writing to their family members can provide them with a sense of comfort as they see how much their loved one meant to so many people. But what do you write in a condolence letter, particularly if you do not know the recipient(s)?
There are a few basic guidelines to follow when learning how to write a condolence letter. First, always keep the letter brief. When a loved one passes, individuals are often consumed with grief and may have a hard time focusing. A condolence letter should never be longer than one or two short paragraphs. Greet the recipient, introduce yourself, express your sorrow, share a fond memory, offer your assistance or contact information, and sign off.
You may reference an experience you shared with the person who has passed or your favorite quality about them, such as their humor or their kindness. You should always keep a condolence letter positive, never mention negative experiences or aspects of their loved one’s life.
If appropriate, you may wish to sign off the letter with an offer to do something for the family, such as bring dinner to the house, drive someone to a doctor’s appointment, or assist with chores around the house. Only do so if you are capable and have intentions to follow through with this sentiment, and include your contact information so that the family can get in touch should they choose to take you up on your offer. Other times, for instance, if you do not live close to the family, you can just close a letter by expressing your sorrows and signing your name–no offers necessary.
What Not to Say in a Condolence Letter
Knowing what not to say in a condolence letter is just as important as knowing what you should say. You want to make sure that you are not insensitive to the family’s grief and that the letter is not focused on yourself. For example, you should be writing to comfort the family and to let them know how sorry you are, not to get feelings and memories off your chest.
Additionally, a letter of condolence should never impose upon the recipient. Do not invite yourself to stay with them, do not invite yourself for dinner, or propose any meetings or get-togethers. You should not ask the recipient for anything; do not ask them to send you photos of your loved one or to mail you any of their keepsakes. Even asking them to call you is not tactful in this situation, outside of providing them with an open-ended offer for assistance as noted above. Express your sympathies, wish them well, and close the letter.
A letter of condolence is also not the place to re-live inside jokes you shared with their loved one or to remember negative events. Well-meaning jokes such as “so-and-so was always late!” can be seen as greatly insensitive and rude during this time, particularly if you do not have a close relationship with the family. Instead, focus on positive things and try a line such as “they always put a smile on my face.”
Use This Sample Condolence Letter
If you’re feeling a little stuck when considering how to write a condolence letter, do not worry. This feeling is understandable. Condolence letters are a delicate communication, and it can be overwhelming trying to find the right words in a time of grief.
Use the sample condolence letter below and fill in the blanks to create a note that is unique to your situation:
“Dear [Recipient Name]/To the Family of [Name of the Deceased],
My name is [Your Name] and I was a [Friend/Coworker/Etc.] of [Name of the Deceased]. I am writing to express my deepest sympathies to you during this time of grief. [Name of the Deceased] was a [funny/smart/loving/kind] person and I will always cherish the time we spent together. Should you need anything in the coming weeks or months, please do not hesitate to reach out to me. You can reach me any time at [Phone Number]. Again, I would like to express my most sincere condolences and sorrow during this challenging time.
When Writing to a Close Friend
Other times, you may find yourself needing to write a condolence letter to a close friend or loved one. Perhaps a friend’s parent has just passed, or a family member’s spouse is now unfortunately deceased. In these cases, longer and more personal letters may be appropriate.
Long condolence letters that reference deeply personal feelings or memories should be reserved for those you are closest with. They are often very therapeutic, both for you as the writer and for the recipient to receive. For letters such as these, they may be as long as you feel appropriate to voice your feelings.
What to Do If You’re Stuck
Sometimes, after a death, condolence letters are simply too challenging to write. You may be overcome with emotion, unsure of what to say to a stranger, or suddenly find yourself unable to find the right words. This is common, and it is completely okay.
If you are feeling stuck when writing a condolence letter, it is okay to turn to store-bought cards. A beautiful, kind greeting card can bring just as much comfort as an original letter, and the thought behind it is what matters most. Additionally, you may find condolence gift baskets available to order online. Ultimately, how you send your condolence is a deeply personal decision and each situation is unique. By expressing your sympathies from the heart, remaining positive, and keeping the letter brief, you are on the right track.