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Words often fail us. We don’t know what to say, how to say it, or when to say it, but we know something must be said. And so, we try our best. This is how you may feel about writing a condolence letter or sympathy card. You know you should say something, but you aren’t quite sure what to say. You worry about saying the wrong thing and making someone’s pain worse. But with a few pointers, you can reach out to others and offer heartfelt, sincere, and meaningful words of sympathy. Here are eight things to keep in mind when writing sympathy cards:

1. Don’t be silent.

It’s human nature to avoid situations that you deem difficult or uncomfortable. But just because something is uncomfortable does not mean it shouldn’t be done. Remaining silent does not help you or the other person. But, if you want someone to feel cared for during a time of loss, write them a card.

2. Social media isn’t always enough.

So many of us are guilty of only expressing abbreviated condolences on social media. “Praying for you.” “I’m so sorry for your loss.” Occasionally, a “Is there anything I can do for you?” But think how much more it would mean to someone, how truly cared for they would feel, if you took time out of your day to specifically and intentionally write to them. You travel to the store, you dawdle over which card to get (it’s got to be perfect!), you go home and sit down to write, and then express your condolences in your own unique way. That’s time you have given up to care for another human being. Condolences expressed on social media are not wrong, and in fact, they can be helpful. It’s an excellent way to express sympathy to someone you don’t know well. But for those you personally know and have a connection to, just think how much more care you will convey by taking the extra time needed to write a letter.

3. Handwrite it.

By handwriting the letter, you add an extra level of personalization. You took the time to sit down and not only gather your thoughts, but write them out. How many people actually do that these days? Far less than in previous years. It means so much more to receive a handwritten note in the mail than any message on social media.

4. Keep it short(ish).

You don’t have to write a tome for your sympathy letter. In fact, it’s better if you keep it somewhat short and succinct balanced with intentionality and compassion.

5. Make it personal.

If you are writing a sympathy card, it’s safe to assume that you either know a person who has lost someone or you knew the person who has died. With that in mind, make your words as personal as possible. If you knew the person who has died, share a positive story that you remember about them or a way they impacted you.

On the other hand, if you didn’t know them personally, mention that you know how much they meant to the family. Or share a story that you heard from your friend about their lost loved one. No matter how you say it, express your sorrow for their loss.

6. No comparisons.

A majority of us know what it is to lose someone we love. It’s hard, painful, and exhausting. But even though we can relate to someone’s grief, we should never compare our grief to theirs. Everyone grieves differently and uniquely. No two grief journeys are the same and shouldn’t be treated as such. Instead, offer words of comfort about your own grief journey, without comparisons. Share a valuable lesson you’ve learned in your own grief journey while still acknowledging, “I know your loss is so different from mine.”

7. Be real.

Don’t be afraid to use words like “death,” “died,” or “die.” According to Dr. Alan Wolfelt, a respected grief expert and counselor, acknowledging the reality of the death of a loved one is necessary to move forward in your grief journey. By being unafraid to use these terms, you participate in acknowledging the reality of the loss.

8. Add a thoughtful action.

These days, no matter where you live, you can take thoughtful action toward someone in grief. If you live nearby, take a casserole over to the family. If you live further away, order flowers online. With the internet, there’s so much we can do even separated by distance. But remember, don’t offer anything you can’t deliver.

Now that we’ve discussed some things to do, we should also touch on some things we should NOT do. In many cases, it’s just as important what you don’t say as what you do say. There are some things that we should never say to a grieving person. A few pitfalls to avoid:

  • Sometimes the grieving person needs to tell their story, but leave it up to them if they want to share anything regarding the circumstances of their loved one’s death. They shouldn’t be expected to tell the story again and again if they don’t wish to do so, and they definitely don’t need other people treating it like juicy gossip.
  • Refrain from saying anything negative about the person who has died. If you knew them, you may not have personally liked them, but for the purposes of a condolence letter, your opinions need to be kept to yourself.
  • Avoid saying insensitive things like “you’re better off without them” or “cheer up!” Every person needs to be allowed to grieve in their own way, not feel like they’re doing it wrong somehow.
  • Don’t mention the will or the estate. If you are in line to inherit something, you will be contacted at the proper time. The condolence letter is not the right time.
  • Try to avoid clichés. For example, “It was just their time to go” or “They’re in a better place” are cliché phrases that don’t help a person in grief. Don’t rely on old tropes. Put your heart into the letter and be real and sincere.
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