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Yesterday a young man in our community of the West End of Richmond died tragically. As we grapple with our heart ache, we wonder how to console his family. The situation prompted me to tackle the issue of writing sympathy notes.

Although I have written numerous sympathy notes, I decided to research the subject to refine my thoughts. I started with re-reading the notes I received after my father’s death in November to get the proper mindset. Then I consulted my favorite source, Etiquette by Emily Post, the 1955 edition (my mother’s copy). Following that, I moved to the 16th edition published in 1997. Lastly, I cross-checked Ms. Post’s advice with two other books: Writing Notes with a Personal Touch by Daria Price Bowman and Marueen LaMarca, and The Art of the Handwritten Note, by Margaret Shepherd. I hope you find these resources and this post helpful the next time you need to send a note of sympathy.

1. The purpose of the sympathy note is to show your care and concern for the bereaved.  NO SUBSTITUTE exists for a hand-written note. Despite our ever-changing communication technology, a note written on formal paper using blue or black ink is the etiquette standard. Shown below is the formal stationery I use with my monogram.

Keeping your own personalized stationery for formal correspondence makes the task a little more pleasant. (Look for an upcoming post regarding your stationery wardrobe.) Back to technology: email, text messages and Facebook, etc. are excellent tools for spreading updates on funeral arrangements and grieving collectively, but do not use those mediums as substitutes for writing the sympathy note.

2. Now that you know to put pen to paper, what to write? Emily Post says it best:

Intimate letters of condolence are like love letters in that they are too sacred and too personal to follow a set form. One rule, and one only, should guide you in writing such letters. Say what you truly feel.

Before you write, think about the departed and the family left behind. Often I draft my formal correspondence on my laptop, rewriting until I get the words just right. Then I save the work in my correspondence folder, because I often use the sentiments as inspiration for future notes.

3. Keep it simple.  Again, quoting from Emily Post:

Don’t dwell on the details of illness or the manner of death; don’t quote endlessly from the poets and Scripture. Remember that eyes filmed with tears and aching heart cannot follow rhetorical lengths of writing. The more nearly a note can express a handclasp, a thought of sympathy, above all a genuine love or appreciation of the one who has gone, the greater comfort it brings.

This advice was particularly helpful as I thought about the young man that died yesterday. It is difficult to put adequate words to paper when contemplating a sudden and tragic death. Don’t worry about being profound; the family just needs to know you are sorry for their loss.

4. If you knew the deceased, mention a fond memory, such as, “Your father had a beautiful voice. I always loved his solos in the church choir.” Again, keep it simple and sincere.

5. What if you don’t know the deceased?

This is perhaps the trickiest of all situations for me. The next few samples from my friends who didn’t know my father handle the matter well. My friend BFwrote so eloquently,

We were so sorry to learn of your great loss. I know your hearts are heavy. Hopefully it eases your pain a bit to know so many folks care about and love you.

A similar sentiment was expressed by CMS :

I know you will miss him very much, but hope you’ll find some comfort in remembering him with friends and family and telling his story.

Lastly, this note from EJL expresses her condolences succintly:

I was so sorry to learn of the recent passing of your dad. Matt joins me in sending you our most heartfelt sympathy. We will keep you in our prayers as you grieve your loss.

• • •

Although many of our methods of correspondence have evolved with rapidly changing technology (you ARE reading this electronically, afterall), writing a sympathy note properly has not changed with the times. It is still the best way to express your condolences.