Brief, sincere, and tactful. If you remember nothing else from what follows, below, then just remember these three words and you’ll do fine.
One of the things I’ve learned from having a small stationery business is that people often are reluctant to write notes because they don’t know what to write, or how to express things in the “correct” way.
Big etiquette books are part of the problem, in my opinion. The implication in the heft of those enormous, fancy-looking volumes is that only people of a certain station or education can, or should, write notes.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.
I promise you, with my whole heart: If you take time to write a brief, sincere, personal note to someone with the intent of expressing care, your note will be received with gladness, whether or not your form holds to the highest social standard (whatever that actually means).
There is never a wrong time to write a note, truly. But there are some occasions when the greatest “wrong” would be not writing a note.
Death is such an occasion.
Few notes are harder to write than those offering condolence for the death of a loved one. Condolence, by the way, is a term of companionship, from the Latin condolens, which means to suffer with another. It’s a word I’ve chosen carefully and specifically here instead of the common “sympathy,” which is a word I dislike and seldom use.
While it may be easier to send flowers or a memorial contribution to charity, there is simply no better time to write a personal note, by hand, than when someone you care about needs companionship most. Your note — brief, sincere, and tactful — is a physical, tangible sign of your presence in a time of great sorrow and loneliness.
Grieving with another, however, does not mean expressing maudlin, showy sentiment. To be blunt here, don’t work out your own shit on the person (or people) most acutely feeling the loss.
Notes of condolence should be marked by a dose of dignity and restraint. Think of your note as a gentle, warm embrace, not a sob fest. Do not dwell on details that are unpleasant or that might offend. Don’t touch on memories that might open old wounds or sorrows. Instead, offer simple kindness and compassion, understanding that your note will be received by someone who is suffering, someone in need of companionship. You are that warm companion, arriving by mail.
I am heartbroken for you, and for everyone who loved your brother. He was a friend to me when there were few I could count on, and I share in your grief. Though words are of little comfort in such a time, I want you to know that I’m thinking of you and wishing you peace.
(with love) (most sincerely) (in friendship),
At lunch today I learned the sad news of Charlotte’s sudden and unexpected death two weeks ago. I’m dumbstruck with grief and so very sorry that I wasn’t there to offer you my comfort in person. Charlotte will long be remembered by many for her kindness and grace. May every heart she touched be open to you and your children.
(with love) (yours very truly) (in friendship) or even, yes (in sympathy)
The hardest of all condolence notes to write is one for the death of a child. It is perhaps the one case when not writing at all would be preferable to writing carelessly.
If you do have the sad occasion to write such a note, then write with utmost restraint in your choice of words. Be brief. Do not write any stories or details that would increase heartbreak in an already heartbreaking situation.
Your note could be as short and simple as, “I want you to know I am thinking of you and share in the shock we are all feeling.”
One final thought on condolence notes: Writing them is an act of self-care for your own grief. In some situations, you may even pen a note and decide not to mail it. But writing will be part of your own healing, and your own healing will help you be present for the friend who needs you.
Addendum: I initially included a sentence about penning/sending a condolence note promptly. Certainly, writing in the initial, acute time of need, when a big, strong circle of companionship might feel like a lifeline for the grief-stricken, is always appropriate.
Grief lasts a long time. The hours, days, and weeks after a funeral can feel lonelier than the time immediately following a death. So if you read the post, all the way to these final lines, and feel guilty in some way about notes you didn’t write, know that you can still write. The three-word direction — brief, sincere, tactful — still applies. (The extra time might make following that direction easier.) The gesture of writing will likely mean more than you’ll ever know.