Q. The mother of a relatively new client of mine just died of a heart attack. I’m a lawyer, and am thinking of sending the condolence note below to the client:
“Janet: So very sorry to hear about your mother’s passing. When the days seem dark, remember to cherish the good memories the two of you created. It will help carry you through the dark. You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
Do you think this note is appropriate?
It’s hard to write any condolence note because the subject is death. But it’s especially difficult when the bereaved is a client or customer. The challenge is to strike just the right tone and choose words carefully. The wrong ones can make a poor impression and even damage the business/professional relationship.
I would start your note, “Dear Janet,” rather than just “Janet.” Omitting the “dear” would be acceptable in an ordinary note, but it’s much too casual for a condolence message. This is a sad and very sensitive situation. I would begin the first sentence with, “I am very sorry to hear...” for the same reason. “So very sorry,” which omits the “I,” seems almost flippant.
The next sentence gives advice, which is a common mistake in condolence notes. Advice is the last thing any bereaved wants to hear – especially from someone who isn’t personally close. The words can seem presumptuous, and make the recipient feel very angry. You don’t know your client well yet, and probably have no knowledge of her relationship with her mother. The same is true of the line, “It will help carry you through the dark.” The person’s reaction very well might be, “How would you know?!”
Realize that writing a condolence note is not about being profound. It’s about acknowledging a death and expressing genuine sympathy. Period. Here is one possibility:
I’m so sorry to hear about your mother’s passing. You are in my thoughts and prayers at this time of sadness. I send my deepest condolences.
Follow with your signature. Here is another option:
I just heard about your mother’s death. I’m so sorry for your loss. Please accept my heartfelt sympathy.
And simply sign your name. Such brief notes are both powerful and appropriate, and they keep you from getting into trouble.
If you have a question for Florence, please email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.