Years ago I had the opportunity to read condolence notes sent to a friend upon the death of her teenage daughter. There were hundreds of sympathy cards and handwritten notes, many of them thoughtfully and beautifully written. But to this day, there was one that still disturbs me.


The sender, an old friend, expressed her condolences. But she went on to mention that she was sitting in her home office working on her expense reports. Her next door neighbor was having his trees trimmed and they were making such a racket, it gave her a headache. I sat back and thought how inappropriate it was to make such a statement in a sympathy note. I’m sure my friend would have given anything to have been dealing with loud noise and a headache instead of the deep heartache of losing her beloved child.


Friends and loved ones spend a lot of time seeking information on how to write a sympathy note; what to include and how to make it heartfelt or memorable. I don’t think anyone has ever asked me what not to say in a sympathy note and what topics or comments to avoid.


So what may be inappropriate to say while expressing your condolences?


  • Including any personal information about yourself or your family in the sympathy note; instead, totally focus on the bereaved and their loss. If you’d like to catch up with your news, do so in a month or so with a follow up “thinking of you” note.
  • Using the wrong the name; for example, the given name of James and not Jim, the nickname everyone who knew Jim knows to use.
  • Spelling the deceased’s name incorrectly. If you are unsure of the spelling, ask someone and clarify before writing your note.
  • Bringing God into it; for example, “It’s God’s plan.” The bereaved may not believe in any God or not your God. You can’t assume that someone thinks the same way you think about religion.
  • Using a cliché such as, “He’s in a better place.” As one bereaved widow put it, “The only place he should be is with me.”



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 Store. Click here to order.



Image: Flickr Creative Commons/lindsay.dee.bunny

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