How to Express Your Condolences to a Mourner

Oct 2, 2016 | 0 comments

Journal WritingThere’s an article in today’s New York Times Style Section called “The Art of Condolence” by Bruce Feiler. It has very good advice about how to write a note of condolence that expresses your sympathy to a person mourning the loss of someone they love. It’s something the younger people in our society are drifting away from.

From the article:

Offering a written expression of condolence (from the Latin word condolere, to grieve or to suffer with someone) used to be a staple of polite society. “A letter of condolence may be abrupt, badly constructed, ungrammatical — never mind,” advised the 1960 edition of Emily Post. “Grace of expression counts for nothing; sincerity alone is of value.”

But these days, as Facebooking, Snapchatting or simply ignoring friends has become fashionable, the rules of expressing sympathy have become muddied at best, and concealed in an onslaught of emoji at worst. “Sorry about Mom. Sad face, sad face, crying face, heart, heart, unicorn.”

One mark of this change is in the card industry. Just over two and a half million Americans die every year, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and we buy 90 million sympathy cards annually, a spokeswoman for Hallmark said. But 90 percent of those cards are bought by people over 40.

He makes seven key points on how to write a note of condolence:

1. BEING TONGUE-TIED IS O.K. When I solicited advice from friends on social media, the one overwhelming thing I heard was it’s perfectly acceptable to admit you don’t know what to say. One rabbi said, “Admitting you’re at a loss for words is far more caring and helpful than writing pithy statements like ‘he’s in a better place’ or ‘your child was so perfect, God wanted her to sit beside him.’”

2. SHARE A POSITIVE MEMORY Instead of falling back on a shopworn phrase, savvy condolers often share a warm or uplifting memory of the deceased.

3. NO COMPARISONS One bit of quicksand worth avoiding is the temptation to say you know what the other person is going through. Everyone experiences grief differently.

4. DON’T DODGE THE ‘D’ WORDS Death in our culture has become so sanitized, we have become afraid to mention it by name. While this instinct may come from a good place, it often lands in a bad one, the treacly territory of euphemism and happy talk. Loved ones don’t “die” anymore; they’re “carried away” or “resting peacefully.” (I especially agree with this point!)

5. GET REAL. By contrast, grievers hear so many vacuous phrases that a little straight talk can often be a welcome relief. A little bluntness goes a long way.

6. FACEBOOK IS NOT ENOUGH These days many people first learn of the death of a friend’s loved one via social media. The instinct to post a comment or dash off an email is understandable. But everyone I spoke with agreed on one point: Even heartfelt gestures like these do not replace a condolence note.

7. THERE’S NO TIME LIMIT ON SYMPATHY While writing immediately is comforting, it’s not necessary. Many mourners are overwhelmed in the immediate aftermath, and a number told me they especially appreciated cards that arrived weeks or even months after the death.

For more tips, check out this early post on The Family Plot Blog: Writing Condolence Cards and Letters.

If you are struggling with how to write a thank you note as a mourner, check out this post at The Family Plot Blog: Post-Funeral Thank You Notes.

Time Flies Card CoverNeed nice blank cards for your thank you or condolence notes? “Time Flies” features an image of an hourglass with wings set inside an ornate circle. The image came from a photo taken of a crypt gate in the historic Woodland Cemetery in Stamford, CT, established in 1859.

Packages of 12 folded note cards on elegant, substantial white linen paper with envelopes are only $15 plus shipping and available at the To Die For Shopping page at

A Good Goodbye