When a person passes away, it can be hard to know what to say to the bereaved. After all, death is an uncomfortable and stressful situation for most people.

It’s perfectly natural to want to reach out to someone who has just lost a loved one or friend with words of condolence. And when done right, sending a letter of sympathy can be an act of support and comfort for people who need it.

But when mishandled, a poorly written or thought out condolence letter can add unnecessary stress and awkwardness to an already difficult situation. So, let’s go over how to follow proper etiquette and offer only kind and helpful words of support to the bereaved.

Send the letter early

Send your condolence letter as soon as you hear about the person passing away.

 Send your letter to the closest people to the deceased

Make sure to reach out to the next of kin to the deceased. So, usually, the spouse. However, if you’re closer friends to the children of the deceased, then most definitely send a letter to them as well as their spouse.

Write a physical letter

Something as impactful as a letter of condolence shouldn’t be in an email, text, or social media message. Take the time to write an actual letter, handwritten, on paper. Letters of condolence are best on stationary or writing paper. If you do send a card, be sure the printed message on the card is appropriate, given what you know about the deceased and his or her family. If you plan to attend the funeral, you can mention it in the letter. But if you can’t make it, don’t mention that fact, and indeed, don’t offer excuses.

Write from the heart

Make sure the words you write down in your letter are personal, genuine, and heartfelt. And no matter what your actual relationship with the deceased was like, make sure to only offer kind words about them.

Keep it short and to the point

During times of loss, it’s better to say little, rather than the wrong thing. Here’s a useful outline for a very appropriate letter of condolence:

  • You are very sorry to hear about their loss, and it is sad to hear about the person’s passing.
  • Mention something nice about the deceased or offer a pleasant memory of them. For example, “Jim was so kind to me, and always gave me great advice.” Or “I truly enjoyed my chats over coffee with Susan.”
  • Ask them to get in touch if there is anything you can do to help them during this challenging time…and mean it!
  • Use a pleasant closing, for example, “With Love,”  “Fondly,” “Sincerely yours,” … etc.

Be respectful

People are all very different and deal with grief in different ways. And of course, how they choose to grieve is no one else’s business but their own. Keep this in mind when writing your letter.  There are things that might seem like the right thing to say … but that can be easily be misconstrued and found inappropriate.

So, avoid writing things like the following (and avoid saying them to the bereaved in person, as well):

  • That the deceased would want the recipient to move on.
  • That the bereaved has returned to work or resumed other life activities too soon after the loss.
  • “It’s all for the best.” … it’s doubtful anyone who’s lost somebody feels that way.
  • “It’s better that he/she is no longer suffering.” While it may be a relief to friends and family that their loved one’s illness or other health issues have come to an end, this is usually not a comforting thing to say to someone after they’ve lost someone dear to them.

Follow these letter-writing etiquette tips, and you can rest assured that you’ve sent your love and support to someone who has lost a loved one in a comforting, supportive—and appropriate—manner.

If you’d like to learn more about how to have impeccable etiquette during any stressful time or important life-transition event, be sure to explore our etiquette courses and sign up for one today!