Sending Sympathy

No matter how our letter writing habits have changed in recent years, it still seems common practice–even among those who are not snail mail enthusiasts–to send a sympathy card when someone you care about has lost a loved one.

Perhaps as a function of my increasing age and my wonderfully large social group, I have had more opportunities than I would like to send these sorts of cards lately.  As I pondered what to write in the most recent card, I thought it was worth sharing my process here.

When I first hear of someone passing away, I consider who might need or appreciate an expression of sympathy and support.  When a man dies, we might think of his wife, but not send notes to his adult children who live far away or his best friend.  If I know those people as well, I’ll reach out with a card.

Second, I find a card that aligns most closely to capturing the person, if I know the deceased personally.  A natural theme for an outdoorsman, a classic theme for a classy lady, that sort of thing.  This alignment helps strike a sweet resonance for the recipient that the deceased was known and seen in this way.

For those who have lost a parent or spouse, I think it is important to send a card that notes that particular loss rather than a more generic expression of sympathy.  Those relationships are so special for us that having the unique nature of this loss recognized feels important.  I know that when my father died suddenly, receiving cards that recognized what the loss of a father stood out as most special.

Of course, please remember that if the relationship is complicated or you are unfamiliar with the quality of the relationship, a more generic response may be appropriate.

Once I’ve chosen my cards and it’s time to sign them, I read the card again and think what personal touch I can add.  If I knew the deceased, I briefly share a cherished memory of the person or an example of a lasting impression they made on me.  If I only know the person to whom I’m sending the card, I share memories or impressions I have of the relationship they had with the deceased, such as: “I know from how you spoke of your mother, that you two were friends, too.”  Those stories and impressions can be precious gifts to the bereaved, showing the lasting legacy of the one who is gone.

After writing, I usually finish the envelope with a nice seal and a pretty and understated stamp.  Of course, another stamp could capture the person’s memory better.  When the man who was like my second dad growing up passed away last year, I used Star Trek stamps for cards to his wife and children.  He was a big fan!

In short, do send a card, use the opportunity to share a sweet memory, and offer your support.  Having been on the receiving end of sympathy cards, I can say that knowing people cared and sent their love meant so much during a time when I was feeling overwhelmed and unmoored. It matters.

In case you need some more guidance or would like some specific words to use, here are some Do’s and Don’ts from Hallmark and Shutterfly.