Guide to Writing Letters of Sympathy

Also see Sample Letters of Sympathy

Sympathy letters can be difficult to compose often because words can't seem to speak to the depths of someone's loss and grief. However -- these words and sentiments can sometimes do the most to offer support and comfort to grieving people.

There are several things to keep in mind when composing a sympathy letter.

General Format for a Letter of Sympathy

Salutation
Dear Mary,
Mention the name of the deceased and acknowledge the loss. You could also use "deeply saddened" for the first line. Using the word death" is appropriate, but if it makes you uncomfortable you can use a common euphemism such as, "passed away"

I was so sorry to hear of John's death.

If possible, include a special memory or thought you have about the deceased. You may also simply relate something positive about the deceased.
If you have to say something general, or can't think of anything good to say, you can use "he will be missed by many," or "the office won't be the same without her."
He was a wonderful friend and mentor to so many young people and will be greatly missed.
Offer your sympathy. Other expressions include sincere condolences" and "heartfelt sympathy"
Please accept my deepest sympathy.
Offer kind thoughts, prayers or good wishes. Other expressions include, "you are in my thoughts and prayers," know that we are thinking of you.

My thoughts are with you and your family.

Close
While "Sincerely" is an appropriate close for business, a business-personal relationship might call for a more personal close such as "With sincere feelings" or "With caring and concern."

Sincerely,

Sample Letter of Sympathy

See more sample letters of sympathy

Dear Mary,

I was so sorry to hear of John's death. He was a wonderful friend and mentor to so many young people and will be greatly missed. Please accept my deepest sympathy. My thoughts are with you and your family.

Sincerely,

Alfred

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Do's and Don'ts of Writing a Sympathy Letter

DO

  • Write soon after hearing the news. Handwrite the note if possible.
  • Simply and directly express your sorrow. When you overstate things you run the risk of saying something meaningless or insensitive.
  • Use the name of the bereaved in the salutation and the name of the deceased in the first sentence or two of the note.
  • If appropriate, tell how you learned about the news.
  • Instead of using a phrase such as "I don't know what to say," simply share that "Words feel inadequate at a time like this." Working past the discomfort experienced when writing the note is important, even though these thoughts will unavoidably come to mind.
  • If you are shocked, say so, but avoid being excessively sentimental or sensational
  • If you feel the need to acknowledge someone's sorrow, use phrasing such as "I can only imagine how difficult your mother's death has been for you and your family," or "I cannot imagine your sorrow."
  • Observe the line between sympathy (respecting people's ability to survive an event) and pity (thinking that the event has beaten them).
  • Make a specific offer of help if you are in a position to do so. "I'll call next week to schedule a time when I can baby sit." "I'll cover for you while you're out of the office.
  • Re-read the note before you send it. Make sure you haven't written anything awkward or tactless by reading the note as though you are the one receiving it.

DON'T

  • Say too much by offering cliches, advice, or inappropriate comments.
  • Say too little by sending only a greeting card with no personal message. Add two or three personal lines of your own.
  • Say "I know how you feel" or compare someone's loss to your own. It's entirely possible that you've experienced a similar loss, but a sympathy letter is not the time to bring it up. Chances are that you already know that though if you've lost someone close to you. It's okay to acknowledge the pain of the loss that someone is feeling, but try to keep the letter focused on that person and not on you. During this time, grieving individuals need to know they are supported and loved.
  • Use overly dramatic language, such as "terrible tragedy" or "awful news."
  • Use irritating phrases such as "You must be grieving," or "You must be lonely." Of course they are.
  • Attempt to interpret the event. "It was bound to happen." "It was God's will," or "It was her time." Other phrases such as "He isn't in pain anymore" of "She's in a better place," may seem comforting, but they minimize the loss.
  • Avoid the too-general offer of help, "If there is anything I can do, please let me know." It gives a grieving person one more decision to face.
  • Say anything religious unless you know the bereaved well and are absolutely sure it will be appropriate.