The condolences letter

More than just ink on paper, a sincere condolences letter is a simple way to tell someone that they're in your thoughts. Furthermore, such letters often become a treasured memento of friends and family's support after a death.

When someone has experienced such great loss, a simple, heartfelt, sympathy note or condolence note provides immeasurable comfort and reassurance that they're not alone in dealing with what has happened. Whereas a condolence note or sympathy card is a less formal communication sent immediately after a death, the letter of condolences (or sympathy letter) offers a longer, slightly more formal expression of sympathy. It is usually sent two to three weeks after the death.

The challenge of writing a condolences letter?

For many people, writing a letter of condolence is one of the hardest imaginable writing tasks. How long should it be? How do you get the right tone? Is there a set format? Will I write the wrong thing? In practice, just writing the letter or card and expressing your feelings is often more important than obeying strict writing rules. Avoid being paralysed by anxiety over what to write and how to write it. Here are a few pointers to help you overcome writing block and get you started on writing a condolence letter that will be appreciated for years.

Characteristics of effective condolences letters

No two letters of sympathy will be the same. That said, all such letters, whether they are long or short, share a few characteristics:

  • They contain a personal element
  • The letter is usually handwritten
  • Their message is a sincere and heartfelt one
  • They are sent at the right time (normally within two weeks of the death)
  • The condolences letter is written in the sender's voice (as they'd speak with the recipient)

The main components of a letter of sympathy

Structure your letter as follows for a meaningful letter:

  1. Comment on the loss and refer to the person who has died by name
  2. Offer your sympathy
  3. Mention one or two special qualities of the deceased
  4. Find a favourite memory of the person
  5. Offer specific offer of help or companionship
  6. Remind the bereaved how their special qualities, strengths and character will help at such a difficult time
  7. Close thoughtfully with some final comforting words

Interestingly, the first letters of each component form the mnemonic COMFORT, a device first used by the writers Leonard and Hilary Stanton Zunin in their book The Art of Condolence: What to Write, What to Say, What to Do at a Time of Loss.

How to write a condolence letter: a sample

Based on the above guidelines (the numbering in the following paragraphs is only to help you relate the text to these), the following demonstrates their use in a real letter. As well as inserting your own content at the appropriate places in the sample letter of sympathy, you'll probably want to change other details or add extra thoughts that are personal to you.

Are you feeling more confident about how to write a sympathy letter? The secret is that writing from the heart will ensure that whatever you add will be the right thing. Ideally, write longhand, keep the writing flowing once you've started, and don't edit yourself as you go. Better, a couple of spelling mistakes in a spontaneous heartfelt note than a cold, impersonal missive that's technically perfect. The recipient will remember your thoughts and wishes, not your grammar and spelling.

Dear [write the name of the recipient here]

  1. I was so sorry to hear about the loss of [insert the Christian name of the deceased]
  2. This must be a very difficult time for you and the rest of the family; we're thinking about you so much
  3. [First name of the deceased] was so much fun to be around; he/she was always the life and soul of the party and such a thoughtful person. We'll never forget how he/she [insert something relevant here]
  4. We'll never forge the time when [insert a special memory here]
  5. With the school holidays coming up, we're sure that you would appreciate some help with entertaining the children. We'll come over for the Bank Holiday weekend and take them out for a few hours' fresh air. [Change this to something appropriate to your circumstances.]
  6. We know that you will miss [insert Christian name of the deceased here] terribly. You're a strong, close family and we're sure you will draw on this to get you through such a difficult time
  7. Once again, our thoughts are with you at this time and always

'Yours', 'Yours sincerely' or another suitable sign-off to close the letter.?

[Sign your name here]?

Responding to a letter of condolences

A response to the above condolence letter example might be as follows. Again, this is just an example for guidance:

Dear [insert name of sender here]?

Thank you very much for your kind letter of sympathy. [Insert deceased's first name here]'s death came as a massive shock. At least we have some consolation from knowing that the illness was a short one and that the hospital care was the best possible.?

The funeral service and cremation were wonderful. We were very fortunate with the weather and the large turnout meant so much to us. I quite understand that you weren't able to join us; we'll look forward to seeing you when you next time you are in the country.?

Yours sincerely?

[Sign your name here]?

You can see a sample letter of condolence and a suggested reply in the Well Planned Funeral's Your Will and Documents product.

Books about condolences

Still stuck for ideas or looking for more sample condolence letters? Why not visit a local library or your favourite online or high street bookshop to get a copy of one of the many books on condolence etiquette and how to write a letter of condolence? Here are a few titles to get you started:

The Art of Condolence: What to Write, What to Say, What to Do at a Time of Loss?
Leonard and Hilary Stanton Zunin
ISBN-13: 978-0060921668

Condolences & Eulogies: Finding the Perfect Words
Bettyanne Gillette
ISBN-13: 978-1402700613

My Deepest Sympathies...: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes and Conversations, Plus a Guide to Eulogies
Florence Isaacs
ISBN-13: 978-0609605653

And for a selection of classic condolence letter samples, how about this one:

A Book of Condolences: Classic Letters of Bereavement
Rachel Harding (Editor), Mary Dyson (Editor)
ISBN-13: 978-0826411686

Follow Up Your Condolences Letter

It takes time to recover from the death of a loved one. What can you do to help someone in mourning? Praise someone who is dealing with a death, particularly if it was a baby death. Remember encouraging bereavement words can help the healing process.