One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “How do I write a sympathy note?” Most of us know how to write a note; after all we’ve been writing thank you notes for many years. But addressing the topic of death is challenging; what can we possibly say to make someone feel better after losing a loved one?

Loss is painful and when someone is hurting, it’s tough to find the energy to get out of bed in the morning no less reach out for help or support. That’s why it’s so important to contact and connect with individuals facing loss. And while I’m an advocate of all forms of written communication, whether notes, cards, postcards, or emails, there are times when it feels redundant to write a sympathy note.

Last summer, the father of a dear friend died. She was out of town when I heard the news and I reached her by phone. We talked for half an hour and she shared that after a long illness, she’d made peace with her dad’s death. I called again and we spoke after the funeral. I invited her and her husband for dinner the night they returned home and she accepted. After speaking with her at length and extending my sympathy over a home cooked meal, I felt it unnecessary to write a sympathy note; and I didn’t. 


Just last week I attended the funeral of a friend’s sister. I had an opportunity to express my condolences after the service. My friend hugged me so tight and I knew that the physical support was a comfort. I attended a Shiva the following night; a Shiva is a Jewish ritual of mourning where family members and friends congregate to comfort the mourners. I then sent a donation in memory of my friend’s sister to the organization she’d designated. After all these expressions of sympathy I felt a sympathy note was not warranted.


I don’t use a blanket approach when it comes to sympathy. Each loss is unique and I make a personal decision on how best to support my friends and loved ones. While I believe it’s always appropriate to write a sympathy note, I feel that there are times when our actions are an expression of our condolences and writing a note isn’t necessary.


Robbie Miller Kaplan is an author who writes from a unique perspective as a mother who has lost two children. She has written How to Say It When You Don't Know What to Say, a guide to help readers communicate effectively when those they care about experience loss, now available in three individual volumes: "Illness & Death," "Suicide" and "Miscarriage." Additional titles are available as e-books: "Death of a Child," "Death of a Stillborn or Newborn Baby," "Pet Loss," "Caregiver Responsibilities," "Divorce" and "Job Loss." All titles are in Amazon's Kindle StoreClick here to order.

Image: Flickr Creative Commons / sarchi

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Comment by Daniel Gafiya on February 17, 2012 at 4:38pm

Some people come into our lives and quickly leave, while some stay awhile leaving footprints on our hearts and we are never the same.

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