How to Write a Condolence Letter or Sympathy Note

A condolence letter is a note expressing your sympathy. It can provide a great source of comfort to someone grieving the loss of a loved one. This letter is a simple gesture that lets someone know that they're in your thoughts.

Finding the right words to say when someone's mourning a death can be difficult. But a few tips will help you get started.

This article explains why you might want to write a condolence letter, offers some basic guidelines to follow, and includes a sample you can reference.

writing a condolence letter
Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin

Reasons to Write a Condolence Letter

It's easy to pick up a mass-produced sympathy card from your local card shop. But writing to offer your personal, heartfelt words of condolence might be more meaningful. To the person mourning, a condolence letter conveys that they are important to you.

Taking the time to handwrite a letter can offer great comfort to someone mourning the loss of a loved one.

In addition, writing a personal letter allows you to share a special memory you might have of the deceased. You can also take this time to offer to talk or help in the weeks and months ahead.

Offering Help

Too often, people say, "call me if you need me." This may be well-meaning, but offering help in this way puts the burden of calling on the one who is grieving.

Instead, be specific about ways you can lend a hand. For example, you might write, "Can I bring dinner over next Wednesday?" or "I'd love to mow your lawn next week."

Continuing Contact

Many people find that they are surrounded by love in the days surrounding their loss. But as the weeks and months go on, they find themselves grieving and feeling very alone.

After the first few weeks following a loved one's death, it's not uncommon for people to feel like they're still mourning, but everyone else seems to have forgotten.

So, in addition to writing an initial condolence note, you may also wish to mark your calendar for, say three months and six months from now. Then you can make contact again.

When Not to Write a Letter

Condolence letters can be a great comfort to loved ones. But, if you are only distantly acquainted with the person you plan to write, a condolence letter may not be the best way to show your concern.

A study looking at people who died in the intensive care unit found that sympathy letters written by a physician or nurse in charge did not reduce grief. On the contrary, it actually worsened depression symptoms.


Most of the time, a condolence letter will be gratefully welcomed by the grieving person, but every situation is different. So take a moment to consider whether writing your letter is wise.

Condolence Letter Guidelines

Deciding to write the letter is easy—actually doing it is the harder part. Here are some tips on how to navigate the when, where, and how of writing and delivering a condolence letter.

When

Try to write and send your sympathy letter promptly. It's best to do so within the first two weeks following the loss.

However, if you've passed that time period, by all means, still write your note. Your letter might arrive when the bereaved is feeling like the world has moved on without them.

Delivery

Funeral or burial services typically occur within the first couple of weeks following a person's death. If you will be attending the service, it's perfectly acceptable to bring your condolence letter along. There is often a basket or collection box for sympathy cards at the service.

You can also mail your note, but remember that many tasks are involved immediately following a death. Therefore, the recipient might not open their mail right away.

Placing a sympathy card in a basket at a memorial service may be welcomed by the family. This allows them to read through condolences at a time they feel ready.

How

There is no wrong way to write a condolence letter. But, you may want to keep some of the following things in mind:

  • Handwrite your note: Use stationery or nice paper. Personally written notes are increasingly rare in today's world of emails and texts. So a handwritten note will carry greater meaning at this difficult time.
  • A letter inside a card: If you want to use a store-bought card, tuck your letter inside the card. Or write it on the card itself, if space allows.
  • Be authentic: Try to write your sympathy letter in your own voice. Write as you would normally speak to the person. Don't feel that you need to get too fancy or try to come up with a poem or verse on your own.

Start by thinking of the one thing you'd like to say most to the recipient that expresses how you feel. It may be about the loss or how much you care about the surviving person.

If you're having difficulty, try reading a few quotations about grief, loss, or mourning. It might inspire you and help you find your own words.

6 Components of a Condolence Letter

The difference between a condolence letter and a sympathy note is the length. For example, a note might be a few sentences, while letters may be a few paragraphs.

It's entirely your choice which you choose to write. It depends on how much you wish to express. It's common to start writing a note and soon find you've written several paragraphs.

Condolence letters use the following six components.

  1. Acknowledge the loss: Refer to the deceased by name. Don't try to dance around or use a euphemism for death—the recipient knows their loved one has died. Moreover, saying and hearing the deceased's name is often comforting to the bereaved during this difficult time.
  2. Express your sympathy: "I'm sorry for your loss" is a common expression to convey sympathy.
  3. Note a special quality: If one or more of the deceased's special strengths or qualities come to mind, say something about it in your note.
  4. Include a memory: Include your favorite memory of the deceased.
  5. Remind the bereaved of their own strengths: A grieving person may be feeling lost, helpless, or alone. Try to remind them of their own qualities that can help them cope, such as their faith, optimism, or resiliency. For example, you could praise their positive attitude during their loved one's illness.
  6. Offer to help: "Let me know if I can help" is too vague. Instead, offer a practical and specific thing you can do.
  7. End with a thoughtful hope: Avoid using the usual endings, such as "sincerely," "love," or "fondly." These aren't quite as personal. Instead, end with active thoughts like, "with you in prayer each moment" or "you are in my thoughts" or "I will always be here to support you." These statements reflect your ongoing sympathy and involvement.

A Sample Condolence Letter

This sample may help you organize your thoughts. You do not need to follow this template exactly.

In fact, you may only want to use small portions of the example. You can reorganize, add, or delete sections as you write your letter.

Write from your heart. Trust that whatever you include will be worth your time and effort to help the bereaved.

Template

Dear _____________,

Acknowledge the loss and refer to the deceased by name:
I was deeply saddened to hear about the death of _____________.

Express your sympathy:
I cannot imagine how difficult this must be for you now, but please trust that I care about you. (Keep in mind, you really have no idea how the person is feeling, and they will find comfort in knowing that you are aware of that).

Note one or more of the deceased's special qualities:
____________ was such a kind, gentle soul. He would do anything to help improve the life of a child.

Include your favorite memory:
I remember the time that _________________.

I cannot imagine how much you will miss _______________. You've always seen the best in everyone you know because of your generous heart.

Offer to help the survivor in a specific way:
Perhaps you could use your scrapbooking talent to make a lasting memory book of _________________? If you would like, I can come over on Tuesday evening to help you make the scrapbook. I have some wonderful pictures of _______________ that I'd love to share with you, as well as several personal memories of how he helped children.

End with a thoughtful hope, wish, or sympathy expression:
I will always be here to support you,

[Sign your name] _____________________ 

Writing a Sympathy Note

A handwritten sympathy note is a shorter form of a condolence letter. It can be just as meaningful to the bereaved. It is often a nice touch to include inside a sympathy card.

When writing a condolence note, you should pick just a few elements from the six steps above. For example, you might use the following:

  1. Acknowledge the loss and refer to the deceased by name.
  2. Express your sympathy.
  3. Note one or more of the deceased's special qualities that come to mind.
  4. End with a thoughtful hope, wish, or sympathy expression.

Summary

A condolence letter is a way to express your sympathy to the bereaved. It can also be a way to offer specific support.

These letters are usually offered in the first two weeks following the death of a loved one. A convenient way to deliver your letter is by dropping it in a basket for cards at a funeral or memorial service. But, of course, you can also mail it.

Condolence letters usually contain an expression of sympathy, a note of the deceased's special qualities, a special memory you have of them, and a specific offer to support the family.

A Word From Verywell

Remember that this advice provides a guide to help you write a condolence letter or note. But, ultimately, the unique nature of who you are and your relationship with the deceased or the surviving loved one will determine what you write.

You can use a few or none of the components shown above in your sympathy letter. The most important thing is that you write from your heart.

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  1. Kentish-Barnes N, Chevret S, Champigneulle B, et al. Effect of a condolence letter on grief symptoms among relatives of patients who died in the ICU: a randomized clinical trial. Intensive Care Med. 2017;43(4):473-484. doi:10.1007/s00134-016-4669-9