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How to Write a Sympathy Message: Tips to Use and Phrases to Borrow

Writing a thoughtful message can be challenging on any occasion, but tragic circumstances make it especially easy for even a strong writer to feel tongue-tied.

What exactly should you write in a sympathy card? Equally importantly, what shouldn’t you write? Is there anything you could possibly say to make things better?

Take a look at our tips below to understand what to write in a condolence card and to get some practical advice on how to phrase your sympathy message with grace. After the tips, we’ve also got some entire paragraphs you can borrow and edit to include in your own sympathy card.

10 Tips for Writing a Sympathy Card That Is Thoughtful and Kind

1. Remember the purpose.

To answer one of the questions we posed above, there’s nothing you can say in a sympathy card that will make things better. But that’s okay! The purpose of sending a condolence card is not to somehow erase the tragedy or replace grief with joy—it’s simply to extend a hug from afar. It’s to say, “I see you, and I acknowledge the pain you’re experiencing.”

When you write your sympathy card, you don’t have to move mountains or convince the bereaved that things are okay when they’re obviously not. The only goal is to show up for that hurting person in a small but considerate way.

2. Consider whether (and how) you should write a card.

For more celebratory occasions like a birthday or graduation, it’s hard to go wrong by sending a card. You’ll only be adding happiness to someone’s day, so why not?

Sympathy notes are a little different, though. Before you hastily jot down your thoughts and seal the envelope, ask yourself these questions:

  • Should I send a sympathy card? Most of the time, the answer can be yes. You don’t really need to worry about sending a card when you “shouldn’t.”** It’s always thoughtful to acknowledge someone else’s grief, even if they’re only an acquaintance.
  • What should the message look like? This is usually the more important question. If the sympathy card is for someone you do not know very well, then it’s best to keep the message short and simple. Writing too much can make the bereaved feel awkward or even intruded upon.

**One exception to this rule is when you’ve had a particularly rocky relationship with the bereaved. In that case, you should honestly ask yourself how the act of receiving a note from you would make that person feel. If simply hearing your name brings up loads of horrible memories, then maaaaybe don’t send a note. The kinder thing might be to privately acknowledge the loss for yourself but not actually get back in touch.

3. Pay your respects.

Acknowledging someone’s grief can feel awkward, but there’s no way around it in a condolence card. You should directly recognize the loss and pay your respects to the person who has passed:

We are so sorry for the sudden passing of Kim.

We are deeply saddened by your loss.

Although we know it’s not the same, we are sharing in your loss.

Deepest condolences to you and your family in this difficult time.

We are sending prayers to your family.

Deepest sympathy to you.

We are holding you close to our hearts, now and in the coming weeks.

We are remembering your mother with you.

We are sharing in this grief and holding you close in our thoughts.

Tip: If these phrases sound super distant or cold (and you know the bereaved VERY well), then you can definitely mix them up with something more “human” sounding. As long as you know the recipient won’t take offense, feel free to offer less formal condolences like, “This just really sucks, and I wish I could change that” or “I don’t know what to say except I’m sorry that the universe sucks right now.”

4. Add some (limited) positivity.

It’s hard to be positive at a time like this, and we definitely aren’t suggesting that you try to insert false positivity into the situation. At the same time, though, including a bit of positive phrasing can give your message a touching and heartfelt note.

Try adding some positive words like these:

Benjamin was a such a wonderfully and contagiously happy person. I am better for knowing him.

I am thankful for the time spent with Maria, although it was far too short.

We are all devastated by this loss, but I am appreciative of the time I was able to share in fellowship with Juan.

Your father was a positive influence in so many lives, including being a mentor for me at work. I am so fortunate to have known him.

5. Avoid the urge to point out a “silver lining.”

In the tricky act of combining sincere condolences with some glimmer of positivity, it’s easy to come across in the wrong way. It’s important to make sure that we do not sound like we’re preaching, pointing out some kind of life lesson, or trying to force the bereaved into finding a “silver lining” from this tragic experience.

There likely is some kind of positive message to be taken away, and the bereaved will hopefully find closure and meaning for themselves in time—but not right now! In the early phases of grief, our role as friends or family is only to be supportive and available.

Tip: When you’ve finished writing your sympathy note, reread your message and ask yourself if it sounds anything like a grannie wagging her finger and saying, “Everything happens for a reason!” If you hear the faintest echoes of this sentiment in your card, then you may want to rewrite it.

6. Be careful sharing your own experience.

This tip goes hand in hand with the previous one, in that oversharing your own grief experience can often come across poorly. The bereaved might feel like you’re focusing too much on yourself or that you’re invalidating their feelings or that you assume your grief is just like their grief—which it never is.

Although you may be sincerely trying to empathize, it can very easily come across as you placing the spotlight squarely on yourself.

If you have experienced a similar loss, it’s definitely okay to point it out. Just keep that part of the message short and focused on the bereaved and their loss. For example, you might say:

I’ll never forget the heartache of losing my mom a few years back. If you want to talk about what you’re going through, I’m always here.

When I lost my sister, I felt a numbness like never before. I don’t know exactly how you feel right now, but I’m always here to listen if you need someone.

I can still feel the grief of losing David. I won’t pretend to have great advice, but I’m here if you need to talk.

When I lost Natalie, I found online support groups to be the only light. If you ever want recommendations, I have a few to share. I’m also here to listen.

7. When in doubt, keep it short.

If you can’t think of anything to say or all your words sound hollow and weird, then it’s best to err on the side of brevity. Keep your message brief and straightforward. You can even follow a formula like this:

We are deeply sorry about the loss of (name). We have so many wonderful memories with (name), and we are sending sincere sympathy to you and your family in this heartbreaking time.

Tip: Even short messages can take some finessing before they sound right. Write out a few versions before committing to one.

8. Offer a concrete, specific form of help.

It’s common to end a sympathy note with something like “Please let me know how we can help.” This is a polite sign-off, and in many cases, it does represent a genuine offer for help—but the problem is that someone who is grieving won’t necessarily know how to respond.

This person is likely just trying to manage waking up in the morning and going to sleep at night, so they won’t be able to voice what they need. They may also feel uncomfortable asking for help, even when you’re directly offering. Instead, try offering help like this:

  • Propose a specific thing at a specific time. “I can come by on Tuesday at 1 with a whole week of meals. Will you be home? And do you prefer meat or meatless?”
  • Offer several options. “Please allow me to help. Which of these would be most helpful to you: dropping off a week of homemade meals, taking your kids to and from school next week, or stopping by and cleaning up around the house?”
  • Explain what you’re willing to do. Sometimes people are unsure how much to ask, so you can set some boundaries by explaining exactly what you are able and willing to do. For example: “I know it may seem like a lot, but I am free and perfectly happy to babysit your kids or housesit your pets for a few days. I can also stop by on Tuesday to do some simpler tasks around the house. I will call you on Sunday to check in, but feel free to send me to voicemail if you aren’t feeling up to talking.”

9. Check in at a later time.

In the very early days of grief, the bereaved person will likely receive an outpouring of cards and sympathy. But after a few weeks have passed, they may begin to feel loneliness and a deepening of grief as “normal” life resumes and everyone else seems to have moved on.

Make an effort to check in after the loss. This check-in could be in the form of another card, a longer letter that shares some fond memories of the recently deceased, or a quick phone call or video chat.

10. Pets are family members, too.

Some people feel embarrassed to admit just how devastating it is to lose a pet, so sending a card can be a great way to show support and understanding. Pets are very much members of the family, and losing a pet can cause the same depth of grief—and to be honest, sometimes even more!

Thoughtful Condolence Messages You Can Use in Your Card

Now that we’ve covered general tips for writing a sympathy card, let’s look at some specific phrases you can use. We gave several phrasing ideas in the list above, but here are some more complete paragraphs you can use for inspiration.

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Friend

“I am so heartbroken to hear of the sudden loss of Patrick. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling right now. Please know that I’m keeping you close in my thoughts and sending my deepest condolences to you, your friend group, and your family.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Mother

“We’re deeply sorry for the loss of your mother. There’s no one in the world like a mom. We’ll always remember her warm laugh and generous spirit, which we see in you and your entire family. Sending you hugs in this difficult time. I will call to check in with you next week, but don’t feel obligated to pick up if you aren’t feeling talkative. We love you.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Father

“We’re so sorry for your loss. There’s nothing that we can say to make this time any less painful, but we just wanted to tell you how sorry we are and that we will always remember your father’s kindness to our family over the years. We’re thinking of you today and in the weeks to come.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Child

“Our heart breaks for you and Jim during this devastating time. We’re so deeply sorry for the pain you are experiencing and will continue to experience in the months and years to come. We’ve donated to the Children’s Cancer fund in memory of Gabby, and we will always remember her infectious laughter. Praying for peace in this time of darkness for your family.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Grandparent

“We’re sending our deepest sympathy to your family after the passing of Grandpa Arthur. We know that it’s been a difficult few years for you guys, and even when you’ve had time to supposedly ‘prepare’ for a loss, it isn’t any easier to go through when the time comes. Sending love and support to you.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Sibling

“We are so, so sorry to learn of the passing of Mari. I can’t understand the pain and confusion you must be experiencing right now, but please know that I am here to listen if you ever need to talk. I will call you next week to arrange for a time to drop off some meals or groceries. Sending hugs.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Spouse

“I’m devastated and heartbroken to hear about the sudden loss of Aaron. Nothing can make this any better or easier for you, so let me just say that we love you and we see the pain you’re going through. We know that the next few days will be especially hard to get through, so please call me any time you need a listening ear. I’ll also call you next week to see how we might be able to best support you. For now, please know that we are thinking of you.”

Sympathy Message for the Death of a Pet

“We’re so sorry to hear about Angel. We still remember the heartbreak of losing our cat a few years back—there’s nothing like the unconditional love of a furry friend. We’re thinking of you in this difficult time and hope you will be able to take the time and space needed to grieve this loss.”

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