What to Write in a Sympathy Card, and When to Send One

Lizz Schumer
Photo credit: Getty Images

From Good Housekeeping

When a friend, family member, or even coworker loses a loved one, it's hard to know what to say. Words fall short in the face of something as devastating as death, especially if you can't comfort them in person. But when a person is grieving, a kind word in a personalized note or card can show them they aren't alone in the world, even if none of us truly know what the person who's lost someone is feeling. That said, many people let this particularly paralyzing writer's block prevent them from sending one at all. According to Hallmark, sympathy cards represent just six percent of all cards sold annually and more than 90 percent of those are purchased by buyers over the age of 40.

That statistic might be outdated this year. A New York Times story in April 2020 found the cards selling out at drugstores and local card stores, online and in grocery store card aisles. If you find yourself among the many who find themselves trying to find the right words at an impossible time, you're far from the only ones. We asked etiquette and communication experts for some guidance on the perfect message.

Don't agonize over the perfect words

Expressing your sympathy will mean the world to your recipient, even if the way you phrase it isn't exactly Shakespeare. "People should not overthink or worry about expressing a sincere gesture of condolence," says etiquette expert Diane Gottsman author of Modern Etiquette for a Better Life and founder of The Protocol School of Texas."We often are not sure what to say so we avoid the person or skip the note. As long as you are communicating sincere empathy and support, your words will be appreciated."

To get you started, you might begin with your own version of:

  • Our thoughts are with you during this difficult time.
  • We're thinking of you, now more than ever.
  • We're here for your family, whatever you need.
  • I'm so sorry for your loss.

Reach out (in writing!) as soon as you can

You should send a note as soon as you hear of their loss, but if you don't get a card in the mail the very same day, late is better than never. "People who are grieving will appreciate words of support and care long after they have lost a loved one," says Barrie Davenport, certified personal coach, author, and founder of Live Bold and Bloom. You may want to address the delay in writing in your card by saying something like:

  • I'm so sorry for not reaching out sooner, but you have been in my thoughts constantly.
  • I've just heard of [loved one's] passing, and wanted to reach out and share my sincerest condolences.
  • You and your family have been in my thoughts since I heard of [loved one's] passing.

Here's what not to write

What you write in that card can depend on your relationship to the person and their dearly departed. Davenport suggests putting yourself in their shoes, and considering what you might find comforting in a time of grief. But avoid clumsy sentiments like, "Everything happens for a reason," or "He was gone too soon," or especially, "It was a blessing in disguise." When someone has lost someone, it doesn't feel like a blessing. And if you don't know their religious proclivities, mentioning God or heaven may even come across as offensive.

Also avoid advice like, "Stay strong" or "You'll get through it." While well-intentioned, those sentiments may come across as undermining their feelings. "Grief is a process that's unique to everyone who goes through it," Davenport adds. "Feelings of grief and loss need to be experienced, and a grieving person doesn't need to feel like they should buck up or hide their emotions."

Express sincere condolences, instead

When writing a sympathy card, sincerity is key. Think about your friend or family member's cultural norms and how they usually handle tough times. For example, you might write something like:

  • I know you are heartbroken about the loss of such an amazing and important woman in your life.
  • I know how much [the person's loved one] meant to you, and I can't imagine what this loss feels like.
  • We were so sorry to hear that [the late loved one] has passed. I know nothing we can say can ease the pain.

As you go on, both experts suggest including three basic elements in a sympathy card:

  • Start with sincere condolences
  • Share a brief memory of the deceased
  • Offer support or assistance – and then follow through

If you didn't know the person, Davenport suggests writing something like:

  • Though I never met your mother, she must have been a remarkable woman to have raised a daughter like you.
  • I know the happy, positive memories you hold of your mother will sustain and comfort you as you grieve her passing.

If you did know the person, consider sharing some happy memories or things you particularly loved about them. Try:

  • I always loved when [loved one] and I [did particular activity together]. I'll always look back on those times with fond memories.
  • Your [loved one] had such a wonderful [character trait or way of relating to others] and I know that will be so greatly missed.
  • Your [loved one] will be sorely missed in [activity they engaged in, like church, a volunteer activity, or leadership capacity]. This world is a little dimmer without their light.

If you don't know what their relationship to the recently departed was like, that doesn't mean you shouldn't reach out. Instead, you can simply say:

  • I can't imagine how they must feel after the loss of your [loved one]. I'm always here for you if you want to talk about it. Know you're in my thoughts.

Don't forget to follow up

There's a reason why many people drop off casseroles when a family member passes away. We all want to do something to feel less helpless when tragedy strikes. Offer whatever feels right to you in your note, but don't forget to actually do it. Davenport suggests practical assistance like:

  • I know you'll be busy with arrangements next week, so please let me pick up your kids from school and bring them to my house in the afternoons.
  • I plan to come by next week with groceries and dinner for your family.
  • If it'll help, we would love to drop by with a meal for you and your family. Please let us know when is convenient.

Even if you don't live nearby or can't offer concrete help, saying that you're happy to act as a shoulder to cry on can make them feel loved from afar. Gottsman suggests:

  • I will keep you and your family in my thoughts. Please know I am here to support you during this difficult time. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you need me. I will follow up with you in the next few weeks.

Close by reiterating your care for the person, and how much you're thinking about them. And remember, when it comes to sympathy cards, the sentiment is the important thing. Genuine care will shine through, even if your words aren't perfect.

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