Q. I just attended an event where I briefly met a colleague whose 18-year-old daughter died in a drowning accident four years ago. I meant to send a condolence note at the time. But I never did, and I’ve always felt so guilty about it. Is it out of the question to send a note to her now? If it isn’t, what should I write?


I’ve always said it’s never too late to send a condolence note. Although your situation gives new meaning to the word “belated” and goes beyond what I had in mind, the advice still applies. As for what to write, I recently came across a note that was shared with me by someone in a position similar to yours. Perhaps it will inspire you to find your own meaningful words. The note read:


Dear ----:

It was so nice to see you Thursday night. It reminded me once again that I hadn’t sent a condolence note when I heard your son had died. I sat down to write at least a dozen times, but no words came out that I felt could comfort you. Maybe it’s because I have children of my own and couldn’t imagine the pain you were experiencing—or didn’t want to.

Whatever the reason, I’m sorry. I thought of you and what you were going through many times.


The writer signed off with “Regretfully.”


These words come across as honest and deeply felt. The note’s brevity adds to its power, and it’s hard to believe your colleague wouldn’t appreciate your own sincere version, despite all the time gone by.


Which also raises another issue: Maybe the writer of the note above would have sent it sooner if she hadn’t tried to comfort the parent. The fact is it’s rarely possible to provide comfort—unless you had a very close relationship with the person (or with the deceased). Attempts to allay sadness tend to be misguided and may backfire. Often the bereaved actually resents such efforts. What you can do is acknowledge the loss and express sympathy. That is the purpose of a condolence note in most cases. 


Additionally, we tend to assume the bereaved expected us to write and/or noticed that we did not. The reality is we’re just not that important. It’s highly unlikely the devastated parent paid attention to who did not send a card or note after the death.      


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 a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.

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