Condolence Tips When Writing to a Stranger

Q. I'm struggling to write a condolence note to the wife of a very close colleague of my late husband. I knew the man well and cared about him. He was a genius in his way, but sort of a lost soul who also had serious health problems. I never met his widow. They married after I'd lost touch with him. What can I say that makes sense when I don't know the bereaved?

In a situation like this, keep your focus on the person you do know—the deceased. Because the note is not obligatory, a good place to start is to consider why you want to write. After all, the widow doesn't expect to hear from you. Sometimes we write to express our own grief. This man obviously made an impact on you, and his death affected you deeply. Putting the words to paper is therapeutic for you, helping to process your sadness. It also makes a connection, telling the widow, "I cared about him, too."

I encourage you to let your thoughts about this man roam through your mind, and jot down those that seem honest and true, capturing who he was. Perhaps memories or details will pop up that make you smile or cry. In your place, I might write something like:

"Dear ---, I was shocked to see Tom's obituary in the newspaper last week. My husband Chris and I were always so fond of him. Tom was a brilliant attorney and such a sweet man. Chris considered Tom a 'younger brother.' I remember Chris accompanying him to the emergency room more than once when Tom fell ill at the office. I send my deepest condolences. Sincerely, (signature)."

Such words memorialize the deceased and assure survivors that the person was valued. That's why notes are often kept and read over and over again for comfort. A note is also a catharsis for the writer, helping to bring closure.

After the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, an astonishing 1,500,000 people sent condolence letters to Jacqueline Kennedy. According to the book Letters to Jackie by Ellen Fitzpatrick, about 800,000 were received within the first seven weeks after the tragedy. The writers were ordinary Americans, who had never met Mrs. Kennedy. Yet they felt a shared desolation and, in this case, a national loss.

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If you have a question for Florence, please email her at fisaacs@florenceisaacs.com.

Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

Image via Wikimedia Commons, Mwanapedia

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