I remember sitting at the kitchen table, with tears of frustration clouding my vision, as my mom gently forbade me from getting up until I had completed the task at hand: writing my first sympathy note to a fourth-grade classmate whose little sister had just died. My aggravation stemmed from a torrent of emotions: worry over saying the wrong thing; helplessness in knowing that no matter what I said, my friend would still be sad; anxiousness from knowing that someday I, too, would face losses.
Patiently and persistently, my mom sat with me. Through her guidance, she helped me to complete the important job of reaching out to a friend in need. What I know now is that sending sympathy notes is more than the polite, kind thing to do. It’s a way of upholding a particular instruction of our faith: Comfort the mourning.
Comfort the mourning is one of the seven Spiritual Works of Mercy, which, along with the Corporal Works of Mercy, are actions that we can perform to extend God’s compassion and mercy to those in need. Based on the teachings of Jesus, the works of mercy offer us a model for how we can attend to both the physical and spiritual needs of others.
Sending condolence cards continues to be one of the primary ways I comfort my mourning relatives, friends, and acquaintances. While it’s never an easy task, keeping the following tips in mind helps me to compose a meaningful and heartfelt note:
1. Start by saying how you feel
When we don’t know what to say, it can be tempting to turn to cliches or offer explanations. But sentiments like, “He’s in a better place” or “It’s a blessing in disguise” are unhelpful at best and offensive at worst. Instead, a sincere line expressing how you feel is a good place to start a note: “I was devastated to hear about the death of your brother” or “I’ve been so sad as I’ve thought about you and how hard this must be.” And if you can’t put words to your feelings, just say so: “I can’t imagine the pain you must be feeling.”
2. Share a memory
Sharing memories of the deceased helps keep their love alive, and in doing so, it supports the bereaved. It can be something as simple as, “I will always remember your dad’s contagious laugh” to something as specific, “One time your sister went out of her way to give me a hand when I was carrying a stack of books. I was so touched by her generosity of spirit.” These memories, like photographs of a joyous occasion, can be a beacon of light during a dark time. They demonstrate that a person lives on in the minds and hearts of many, not just those who were closest to the deceased.
3. If you want to do more, give a specific offer
Some people may like to include an offer to help in their note. If you choose to do this (and it is completely optional!), consider giving a very specific offer. Instead of saying, “Let me know if there is anything that I can do,” say, “I’d like to pick up some groceries for you.” Getting specific takes the impetus to coordinate off the receiver and appropriately puts it on the giver. Offers that may be appreciated are to prepare a meal, to watch the kids, or to meet up for coffee when the dust has settled. After making an initial offer in a note, follow up with a phone call to coordinate specifics.
4. Cast your net widely when defining loss
We know that our friend who lost a sibling or our coworker whose parent recently passed away is grieving, but sometimes we forget that life-impacting losses stretch beyond the boundaries of immediate family members. Medical professionals use the term disenfranchised grief to refer to sorrow that people experience when they incur a loss that is not socially sanctioned, openly recognized, or publicly mourned, such as the death of an ex-spouse, a pet, or an unborn baby. Not having loss acknowledged stymies healing, while having sadness noticed and affirmed promotes the mourning necessary for genuine healing to occur. I will always remember how validated I felt when I received a sympathy card after the death of my dog. Considering loss broadly and sending sympathy cards accordingly gives you the opportunity to support individuals who may not be receiving the outpouring of love that is needed to heal.
5. Remember that short and simple is okay
When all else fails, remember the words of Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” If you don’t know how else you can help or draw a blank when thinking of memories, that’s okay. Send a note anyway. All it takes is a stamp, a card, and the two minutes it takes to write: “Just a note to say that I’m thinking about you during this difficult time.” Simply knowing that people are thinking of them can be comforting and uplifting for the bereaved.
(Originally published March 7, 2018)