Sympathy, derived from the Greek words for fellow and feeling, is an emotion that must be thoughtfully and tactfully expressed. When someone we care about experiences a loss, it is always a nice gesture to send a sympathy card. Reaching out with kind words can be a great comfort to the bereaved.
Taking the time out of your day to stop and write a card or note to someone who has recently experienced a death in the family is a long-time custom in western society. Decades ago, families used to print “death cards” announcing the loss of a family member that were then sent to friends and associates of the deceased. The recipients of the death notices would send back condolence cards.
When the practice of sending death announcements curtailed, likely due to the wider accessibility of newspapers for obituaries, the practice of sending sympathy cards remained in place and still flourishes to this day.
Selecting the right sympathy card
First, do not limit yourself to a pre-printed sympathy card. Sometimes a simple, handwritten note is more meaningful. A short note expressing your feelings about the loss of the loved one with a kind salutation is a lovely way to express your sympathy.
If you do choose to send a card, it is important not to just grab one off the shelf without reading. Take your time and find an appropriate message. Expressing sympathy at the loss of someone at the end of a long life will require a different message from a sudden loss of a young person. Furthermore, your relationship to the bereaved will be different. The loss of a coworker’s parent will require a different card and message than the loss of a spouse’s parent.
If you have any photographs of the deceased that their family may like to have, it would be a nice gesture to include one or two with the card. If you have an abundance of them, send just a couple right now and follow up with a large album, scrapbook, or digital file at a later date.
It is not easy for everyone to express their feelings in words and buying a pre-printed card may help with finding the appropriate sentiment. It is important to choose one’s words carefully when expressing sympathy.
What to avoid writing in a sympathy card
- Do not use the words “at least” in any way whatsoever. Those who have experienced a loss do not need or want to hear their loss minimized with comments such as “at least he didn’t suffer” or “at least it was quick.”
- Do not tell funny anecdotes or stories about the deceased. Save that for in person. Writing something like “I have such fond memories of __________” is more appropriate.
- This seems obvious, but it needs to be said. Do not mention any hard feelings or negativity, even if they are well deserved.
- Unless you are certain of their religion, do not use any religious language.
- Do not ask anything of the deceased, even something as small as requesting a phone call.
- Do not ask for any details of death. If the family wants you to know, you will know.
What to say in a sympathy card
- Do share your positive feelings about the deceased. Particularly, how they made you feel.
- Offer support only if you can follow through. If you do offer support, clearly state what you would like to help with and follow the card with a phone call.
- Express your empathy for their loss.
- Reassure them that there is no time limit on grief.
- Keep it short. One sincere line is enough. Do not overthink it.
In doubt, err on the side of caution. One simple, heartfelt line of sympathy is more than enough to express to the recipient that you care.
“I am thinking of you during this difficult time,” or “I am so sorry for the loss of _____.” These statements are fine if these rules seem too overwhelming.
Addressing religion in a sympathy card
Pay attention to the religion expressed in the card and make sure it is appropriate. If you are uncertain of the recipient’s religion, choose a card with no mention of a higher power or afterlife. On the other hand, if you are certain of their religion, they will likely find comfort in words of their faith.
Example sympathy messages
The most important quality any sympathy card must have is sincerity. Whether you choose a blank card that you fill in yourself or a card with a pre-printed message, take the time to ensure that the words are an accurate representation of your feelings towards the person who is receiving the card.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a mother
- I am sorry to hear about the passing of your mother.
- Please accept my condolences for the loss of your mother.
- I was saddened to hear about the passing of your mom.
- With caring thoughts
- Your mother’s spirit will always live on in you.
- Your mother was always so proud of you.
- We will never forget your mother.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a father
- I am sorry to hear about the passing of your father.
- Please accept my condolences for your father’s passing.
- I was saddened to hear about your loss.
- Your dad would be proud of the person you have become.
- Your father’s spirit will always live on in you.
- We will always have wonderful memories of your dad.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a husband
- I am sorry to hear of your husband’s loss. Time is a thief.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences for the loss of your husband.
- We will always have great memories of your husband.
- The bond shared by the two of you will always be remembered.
- I offer my deep sympathy for the loss of your husband.
- Please be assured that you are in my thoughts.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a wife
- I am so sorry to hear of the loss of your wife.
- ______ was such a wonderful woman, and I am so saddened to hear of your loss.
- I offer my deep sympathy for the loss of your wife.
- The bond shared by the two of you was one of a kind.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences for the loss of your wife.
- The coming days will be a little less bright without her smile to light up the room.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a child
- While there are no words to adequately express the loss you have suffered, please know that you are in my thoughts.
- I am deeply sorry to hear of this tragic loss.
- A parent should never have to bury a child. I’m so, so, sorry.
- __________ will always live on in our memories, and it will never be enough. Please accept my sincere condolences.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences at the loss of your beloved ______.
- I can not find the words to tell you how deeply affected I am by your loss.
- Such sorrow is unbearable. I offer my deepest sympathies.
What to write in a sympathy card for a miscarriage
- I am sorry to hear of the loss of your pregnancy.
- Please accept my condolences for your loss.
- There are no words to adequately express the grief one feels from a loss such as this.
- I was so sorry to hear of your loss. You are in my thoughts.
- Wishing you strength as you recover from this tragic loss.
- __________ was much loved and wanted by many and will be sorely missed.
What to write in a sympathy card for a brother
- I am sorry to hear of the loss of your dear brother.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences for the loss of your brother.
- Losing a sibling is losing a lifelong friend and companion. I am deeply sorry.
- _____________ will not be forgotten. His smile always lit up the room.
- I will never think of ____________ without remembering your brother.
- Your brother was so fortunate to always have you in his corner. I am sorry for your loss.
What to write in a sympathy card for a sister
- I am sorry to hear of the loss of your dear sister.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences for the loss of your sister.
- Losing a sibling is losing a lifelong friend and companion. I am deeply sorry.
- Your sister will not be forgotten, and we will miss her every day.
- Your sister was fortunate to always have you in her corner. I am sorry for your loss.
- We are filled with beautiful memories of your sister.
- You will be in our thoughts as you recover from the loss of your sister.
What to write in a sympathy card for a grandparent
- I am so sorry for the loss of your (insert grandparent nickname, ie Grandpa Joe or pappap or nana).
- I am sorry to hear of your grandparent’s passing. What a blessing to have had so much time together, making memories.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences at the loss of your grand(parent).
- The loss of a grandparent is the loss of countless memories. I hope that yours stay with you always.
- Your grandparent will live on through you, and they would be very proud.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a great friend
- Please accept my condolences at the loss of your friend.
- Some friends infiltrate our hearts and become family.
- ___________ seemed much more like family than a friend, and I’m so sorry that you had to say goodbye so soon.
- _______________ will be fondly remembered.
- I’m sorry for the loss of ____________; sometimes people come into our lives and enrich them for the better.
What to write in a sympathy card for a colleague or coworker
- I’m so sorry for the loss of ____________. It was always a pleasure working with them.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences for your loss.
- I am so sorry to hear about the passing of ____________. I am glad you got to work with them and enjoy their company for so long.
- We will always have great memories of ____________.
- I was saddened to hear of the passing of ____________. I know you must feel terribly sad without him/her at the office each day.
What to write in a sympathy card for the loss of a pet
- I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of your beloved _______________.
- Your pets are your family, and today you must feel a terrible loss.
- Please accept my condolences for the loss of your sweet pet.
- I was sad to hear that your special _____________ passed on. They were such a loyal companion to you for so long.
- Losing a pet is like losing a family member. Please accept my sincerest condolences.
What to write in a sympathy card for an unexpected loss
- I am saddened to hear of ___________’s unexpected passing. Please accept my condolences.
- I find it difficult to put into words how sorry I am for this tragedy.
- We were so sorry to hear about ____________’s passing. We are holding you in our thoughts.
- Please accept my condolences for the sudden loss of _____________. We have many special memories, and he/she/they will not be forgotten.
- An unexpected loss such as this is so difficult to deal with. Please know you are in our/my heart(s) and have my sincere condolences during this time of grief.
- I am so sorry to hear of your tragic loss. Our hearts/thoughts/prayers are with you at this time.
What to write in a sympathy card for someone whom you do not know
- I am sorry for your loss.
- Please accept my sincerest condolences in your time of grief.
- Although I never knew __________, I know how much he/she/they meant to you. I am keeping you in my thoughts.
- While I never met ____________, knowing how much he/she/they meant to you is evidence of how great he/she/they must have been.
- I know how much _________ meant to you and my thoughts are with you in this difficult time.
- I have loved listening to stories about ______________, and I am deeply sorry to hear of his/her/their passing.
How should I sign the sympathy card?
As with the message, a signature on a sympathy card should be simple and sincere. Still, avoid “sincerely” as it is over-used to the point of seeming impersonal. Try some of the following:
- With love
- All of my blessings
- With all of my care
- Wishing you peace
- Your friend always
- With all of my affection
- Forever your friend
How should I address the sympathy card?
If you are unsure how to address the card, default to a formal business format.
For Married Couples:
- Mrs. Jane Smith
- Mr. John Smith
- Mr. & Mrs. Smith & Family
- The Smith Family
Once upon a time, married women would only be addressed as Mrs. (Husband’s Name). This process is almost completely extinct and unless you are certain that a woman still prefers this, do not use it.
For Single People and Widows:
- Ms. Jane Smith
- Mr. John Smith
Offering Condolences Online
It is now custom for funeral homes to host online obituaries that allow comments from friends and family. Etiquette for these condolences should be similar to sympathy cards. It is also nice to send a follow up e-mail, message or mailed card. It can be a comfort to a family to see dozens or hundreds of people cared about their loved one enough to seek out their obituary online and send a quick note.
Treat e-mail condolences a little less formally. Do not ask any intrusive questions or use insensitive language. This is a good format to offer help or let them know when you will be stopping by with a meal or to sit with them. An e-mail allows you to ask how others in the family are holding up and if anyone could use any support or help, as well. Even if you e-mail and offer condolences online, it is still a nice gesture to send a card.
Text Message Condolences
Never use a text message for a formal message of condolence. Text messages should be for short, informal conversations only. Sentiments like “I am so sorry about your loss. I’ve left dinner at your front door” are the only kind that could be appropriate. Do not text questions, requests or any messages that require anything of the person who is grieving.
If you have tried calling, and the bereaved has not answered, it is fine to text about getting them on the phone or any other normal conversation you may have. Make sure, though, that you save the formal thoughts for when they’re ready to talk or when you send them a card in the mail. If you do feel that you must send a text, make sure it disclaims that they do not need to call you back. A great example of this is, “I’m leaving dinner at your door. No need to call back or talk until you’re ready. I’m thinking of you.”
What to send if you’d like to do more
In many circles it is customary to send flowers. Fortunately, florists can assist you with appropriate arrangements, including informing you of what flowers are most often sent to the bereaved and why. Use any of the above sympathy card suggestions to choose what to write on the card that is delivered with the flowers.
Ready to heat or ready to eat meals, whether homemade are not, are always appreciated. In the days following a loss, people will not want to cook, clean, or even eat. If possible, do not include any dish or utensils that you want back. It is not expected for the bereaved to remember who sent which dish.
- Memorial Gifts
There are many types of memorial gifts available on the internet that can be customized and given as a sweet memento of their loved one. Any of these can be ordered and given at a later date, such as an anniversary of the death or any birthday or holiday that seems appropriate.
- Framed picture of the deceased
- Necklace with engraving of name/birthstone
- Garden stone with engraving or special image
- Dedication of a park bench with a plaque
- Planting of a tree with a plaque
- Artist’s rendering of a portrait of the deceased
- A DVD or digital file of photos, videos, and sound recordings
The days and months after the memorial services, when everyone goes home and the food runs out can be the hardest for the grieving. Their world is completely upside-down and seeing everyone in their life go back to normal can be a surreal experience. In these trying days, reaching out to acknowledge their loss and assure them that their loved one is not forgotten can be extremely important and helpful.
These guidelines always have exceptions, of course, as no loss is the same. The important thing is to be sincere and kind. Opening sympathy cards helps the bereaved see how many people cared about their loved one and can aid in the grieving process. We are social creatures and in times of great crisis and leaning on each other for comfort is what makes us unique among living things.
While I hope you never have to use this advice, the unfortunate reality is that you will. I’d like to encourage you to share your loss experiences and what helped you through your tough time with others in the comments below.
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