How to Write a Condolence Note

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When someone you know is dealing with the death of a family member or friend, one of the most meaningful ways you can show your support is by sending a condolence note. My own father died more than a decade ago, yet I still remember the handwritten and emailed expressions of sympathy I received from friends and acquaintances; they buoyed me up and made me feel less alone during those early days and weeks of grieving.

If you’ve been through this type of loss yourself (and the older we get, the more likely that is), you know how important those messages are. So why, when we’re on the other side, is it so hard for so many of us to actually site down and put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard? We asked Daniel Post Senning, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette and a spokesperson for The Emily Post Institute, for expert advice on how to write a condolence note—and why it matters.

What should a condolence note say?

What to write—and not write—as well as how much to write, is what trips up many of us. But “people often make these things more difficult than they need to be,” Post Senning says. The key thing to remember: You’re expressing your sorrow and offering your sympathy. Be sincere, and don’t overcomplicate it.

To that end: Keep in mind the “note” part of the condolence note. “It doesn’t need to be a letter,” Post Senning says. “It’s fine for it to be brief.” So a couple of heartfelt lines, such as, “I was so sorry to hear about the loss of your _____” and “You and your family will be in my thoughts” is perfectly acceptable, especially in situations where you didn’t know the person who died, or if the person you’re writing to is not a close friend.

If you want to write more, you can add another a sincere line expressing your feelings, mention a memory of the person, or make a specific offer of assistance. The bottom line: “You want to honor the relationship,” Post Senning says. “Sometimes that’s about the person who passed, sometimes it’s more about the person you’re writing to.”

That said, there are a few don’ts when it comes to writing a condolence note:

  • Don’t dwell on the details of how the person died.
  • Don’t make it all about you. It’s fine to express your sorrow, of course (that’s the point!) or share a personal connection to the loss—just keep it in check.
  • Don’t tell someone how to feel—phrases like “I’m sure they’re in a better place” or “Now you can move on,” while well meaning, are not helpful.  “There can be an impulse to find the positive in the situation, but a condolence note isn’t the time or place to make that turn,” Post Senning says.

Should you mail a condolence note or is email OK?

Luddites, rejoice: snail mail wins when it comes to condolence notes. “A handwritten condolence note is the traditional way to make that gesture, and it really does show someone that you care,” Post Senning says. “This is one of those times where the medium becomes part of the message. I’d make the effort and invest a little of myself, personally.”

From an etiquette standpoint, however, email is acceptable “if you’re absolutely certain they use it frequently,” he adds. Even then, it’s still best practice to follow up with a handwritten note.

The important thing here is that any expression of condolence is better than none, so don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good, Post Senning says. Go ahead and send that email if you’re out of stamps and certain you can’t get to the post office for a week. People will appreciate any effort you make. But do be sure to get those stamps eventually…

How soon should you send the note?

This is one time when you don’t want to procrastinate. According to Post Senning, you should really send a condolence note within a day or two of learning the news. “There’s a period of time when someone is at the stage of the grieving process where a condolence note is really meaningful and significant,” he says. “It’s good to get it out as soon as you know.”

What kind of stationery is acceptable for a condolence note?

Traditional etiquette used to call for stationery with a black border, Post Senning says. While that’s not necessary today—most personal stationery is fine—you do want to avoid anything that’s overly playful or fanciful, or that prominently features your name or address (because, again, it’s not about you). If you’re in doubt, a store-bought sympathy card is always a good choice.  

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