Recently, the need arose for me to write a condolence letter. Over the years, I have sent many cards and notes to friends who had suffered a loss, but this time was different. It was a friend who died, a friend with whom I had been out of touch for several years. I did not know her family or how to contact them, yet it felt important to reach out to them.
As a first step, I contacted the senior living community where she had been living, in an upscale city located to the south of San Francisco. They graciously assured that they would forward a condolence letter to her daughters. So next came the actual writing of the letter.
One of my go-to resources for all things etiquette is Emily Post’s Etiquette: Manners for a New World, published by the Emily Post Institute. The original Emily Post etiquette guide was published in 1922. Much has changed since then, and the guide, now in its 19th edition, keeps up-to-date on sound advice for modern questions.
Emily Post advises brevity when writing a condolence note or letter. “Say what you truly feel. A single sincere line expressing the genuine feeling you had for the deceased is all you need to write…If you have a specific memory about the deceased, it will be a welcome addition, but this is completely optional.”
My thoughts, however, came tumbling out in profusion. I tried to slow down when I started to make handwriting mistakes. Then, my trusty Pilot pen ran out of black ink, and I could only find blue pens. Legibility was becoming an issue. The note/letter clearly would not fit on a single sheet of stationery. Would it be too gauche to type the letter?
There are many books and online sites to help one find the right words to say. More than one such site is connected to food companies, which even offer sample letters while pitching their product as the right gift to send to the bereaved.
The Gallery Collection, an online card shop, offers many valid prescriptives when writing a condolence card, including the following: “Your message should be short and simple, the exception being if you were especially close to the person and want to share fond thoughts or memories.”
Many funeral homes also offer good pointers when writing a condolence letter. Dignity Funerals of the UK advises that: “writing a letter of condolence and sympathy can help bring comfort to the bereaved. Try and write a few simple words to show that you are thinking of them and that their loved one had a positive impact on the lives of others.” Suggestions include: 1) Write the letter by hand; 2) Keep it short and simple; 3) Express your condolences; 4) Share a memory; 5) Offer your help and support; and 6) Close the letter with some thoughtful words. and messages to avoid.
Surprisingly, a number of sites, including the New York Times, approve offering a sympathy note via email when addressing a good friend, albeit followed by a hand-written note in the mail. No recommendations were found for sending a typed note, though surely it would be forgiven by the recipients if the message is sincere. A number of sites also include tips on messages to avoid, such as “it is all for the best,” or “this is a blessing in disguise.”
Ultimately, I composed my letter on the computer. Then I edited and downsized the message and hand-copied it on a single note card, with a minimum of mistakes.
This past year, with the tragic spread of COVID-19, has been difficult on many levels, and the art of the condolence letter has never been more important. Whether handwritten, typed, or e-mailed, conveyed via social media or text, the important thing is to acknowledge the loss and offer sympathy and support with a condolence letter.
Further thoughts on the condolence letter can be found at socialcorrespondence.com.
How to Write a Condolence Note by Katharine Rosman. The New York Times, April 2020
What to Write in a Sympathy Card by Lizz Schumer. Good Housekeeping, June 1, 2020