Relationships

How to Write a Condolence Note

condolence-note-how-to-write

This past spring, as I’ve spoken about, my brother-in-law Paul died of lung cancer. My sister, Lucy, was flooded with condolence cards and flowers. “I loved every single card,” she said, “Just getting a card felt so good.” Yet a few things stuck out as especially touching. We spoke on the phone this week, and she shared what she has learned…


Snail mail a card. Every email, phone call, everything was wonderful; I was astounded by how kind people were. Physical cards were especially nice to hold onto. I didn’t care at all what the card looked like. I have them in a basket in our living room and see them every day.

Describe how you can help. I was so grateful when people said, “Let us know if there’s anything we can do.” But when people offered specifics, it felt even easier for me to take them up on their offers. One friend wrote, “If you ever want to come over, we can grill and make grapefruit mojitos; we’d love to see you and there’s nothing we wouldn’t do for you.”

Tell stories. I loved when people wrote specific stories about Paul that I’d never heard, and told me how he had impacted them, what they loved about him, positive things they observed about our relationship. I personally think, the more detail, the better. The grieving person is thinking about the person 100% of the time; nothing you say is going to make her sadder; instead, the stories you tell are going to make her feel connected.

Literally nothing is too cheesy to write. Whatever emotion you’re feeling, it’s probably helpful to say. My friend Kimmy, who lives in Sweden, wrote, “I’m sending you love from across the ocean, as you swim through yours.” Another friend wrote: “When your grief feels dark and bottomless, know that we are here to reflect Paul’s light and love back to you, whether it’s next month, next year or in ten years.” If there is something that you think sounds pretty, go for it. They aren’t analyzing what you say — they just feel so raw.

And there is nothing too great you can say about the person. One friend wrote, “I last saw you both at a friend’s wedding; you were gorgeous, and Paul was strong, confident and deeply happy. The awe I felt for him, you, both of you was astounding, and it has only ever grown.” I was blown away. You’re so starved for remembering and thinking you’ve lost something so great, when you hear something positive, it’s affirming and validating. You realize that people get what he meant to you. They understand, they think it’s important too. Your love is not lost in the world.

Of course, you don’t have to be sentimental. One friend wrote, “THIS SUCKS,” and that felt great, too.

Consider involving kids. I liked when kids drew a picture of Paul and me. Sometimes they drew a random picture and that was sweet, too. One note said, “Dear Lucy, You’re sad. Happy St. Patrick’s Day. I said a prayer for you last night. I’m Molly’s son. Love, Finn.” And then he drew a four-leaf clover. One girl wrote “Sick, Happy, Dr. Paul” and then crossed out the word sick. That was before he died. Her mom was like, I guess she decided she didn’t want him to be sick! It felt so poignant.

How to Write a Condolence Note

A drawing from a friend’s daughter. “VM” stands for “very much.”

Say you’ll never forget him or her. I like hearing that people will miss him. Someone sent me flowers and said, “Thinking of you; we miss Paul dearly,” and that meant a lot. A nurse who worked with him wrote, “We cherish the moments we spent with Paul in the operating room; he will never be forgotten.” Even though she’s a stranger to me, it’s really comforting to know that a nurse out there will never forget him either.

Write, even if you’re an acquaintance. A couple of people I didn’t know well still wrote to me (old friends of Paul’s, or the artist who illustrated Paul’s New York Times essay). It meant so much. You don’t have to be a close friend to write.

Reach out anytime. A few friends texted or sent flowers on the one-month anniversary of his death. Others sent a note a couple months later. They said, “We’re thinking of you,” and that was nice. You are not better two months later. I can imagine it would feel good to receive flowers six months later, a year later.

lucy-paul

A photo of Lucy and Paul last Christmas.


Thank you so much, Lucy.

I hope this is helpful. Recently I came across this beautiful quote: “When a person is bereaved, the simple, sincere expressions of sympathy you write are deeply felt and appreciated. At this time of withdrawal from the world, your letter can be a warm and understanding handclasp.”

Lots of love to you all. xoxo

P.S. A trick to life, and the power of empathy.

(Top photo by Our Food Stories.)

  1. Keenda says...

    I found this website randomly a few months ago and I really really love it. It is so thorough and thoughtful.

  2. Marcy says...

    I am crying at work reading this: http://stanmed.stanford.edu/2015spring/before-i-go.html

    Lucy, I am so sorry for your loss. What a candid and beautifully written post by Paul. I don’t know you, but my heart goes out to you and I hope that you find comfort.

  3. Heather says...

    Lovely, touching and beautiful as many readers have said. I always say- just say what comes to mind first. Its not what you say, its that you said something and acknowledged their pain and loss. With social media I see it every day and freeze- Is it a good friend? It is a friend of a friend?… and then I stop thinking and just say something. We can all relate to loss and we all feel pain. Try to give someone a spark of understanding and it goes a long way for them.

  4. Beautiful post. I really liked it, even though I don’t know the couple one bit I really sorry for Lucy.
    I hope she gets through this as easy as possible.

  5. Juliana says...

    I lost my father when I was very, very young and I distinctly remember the day I found all the sympathy cards my mother had saved when he suddenly passed. I remember pulling open the rickety old bottom drawer of the antique chest that sat in our barely used living room and sitting on the floor for hours inhaling the memories of my father through the lens of our family and friends. The words on those cards brought my father to life for me and for that, I will be forever grateful.

  6. Cliff says...

    This reminds me of the cards and notes that I received after my wife died two months ago. This article is absolutely right and I’m going to save this article in my Flipboard so I can do a better job helping ease others through the excruciating pain of loss.

  7. Oh, Joanna, I am so sorry you lost your brother-in-law and that your sister lost her husband. This is such a helpful and poignant post. I’ve thought a lot about this topic myself after walking through losses and dark times with friends and family members, and I echo every single point you and Lucy make here. What she is saying is very similar to what my loved ones have said. I don’t think it can be emphasized enough how meaningful it is to reach out in ANY way during bereavement (and long after). Thank you both for sharing so helpfully and honestly. I’m going to update my own post on this topic to direct people to yours!

    Hugs,
    amber

  8. Renee says...

    Because of this post, I took flowers to my neighbor yesterday. It would have been her husband’s birthday but he passed away last year. It meant a lot to her. So thank you.

  9. Catherine Thompson says...

    This information is sooo helpful. I always spend a lot of time thinking of what to write and how I can help. This encourages me to write more stories, send more photos and offer specific help. This is great! I want to share it with everyone I know. Thank you so much for sharing your feelings.
    Catherine

  10. Aki says...

    Thank you Joanna for this profoundly beautiful post.

    • Aki says...

      A hug to both of you, from Mexico City.

  11. Samantha says...

    A dear friend died a couple years ago on January 1. I was so sad, and stayed home for a couple days. One friend texted, with no warning, and said: “I just dropped some food off on your porch.” I went downstairs and she had left a grocery bag of healthy, simple, clean food: a green smoothie, a kale salad, some homemade broccoli soup, chocolate covered goji berries. It meant so much to me (and, indeed, was all I ate for the next several days). What I learned from that, too, is: just do something, anything. I’ve always agonized about doing the “right” thing: if I were going to drop food at someone’s house, I would make sure it’s a perfect cake, perfect cookies, a healthy (and perfect) salad and, of course, in perfect packaging! It’s just too much. She just did something, right then, from her heart and her adorable kitchen, and I’ve never forgotten it.

  12. Robin says...

    Thank you so much. I often feel badly that I am not always able to telephone people to say how sorry I am, just because it is overwhelmingly sad for me. So I love that Lucy says that she appreciated the written notes too. This has given me the encouragement to always, always send a note.

  13. luisa says...

    Thank you for this post. I sometimes feel that my words are so insufficient at a time of such sorrow, but they are really all we have to convey our love and solidarity. It’s the very least and perhaps the only thing we can do.

  14. Mimi says...

    Thank you. Tears. Very poignant and important post.

  15. Stephanie says...

    Thank you and to Lucy for sharing these thoughts. This is invaluable and beautiful advice that I know I’ll come back to.

  16. Sarah says...

    Thank you so much for this post. My ex father-in-law died recently and I have been really struggling with what to say/write to my ex mother-in-law. Your words were helpful beyond my words…thank you!

  17. I can’t thank you enough for this post! This is something I’ve been struggling with lately and I deeply appreciate these ideas and encouragement. Though I’m so sorry for the event that spawned it – this sucks. Sending giant hugs to Lucy. I’m so sad to read about this loss and I would gladly make her grapefruit mojitos. <3

  18. Deb D says...

    This moved me beyond words…but I learned from it and wrote anyway,
    sending sweet thoughts to your family

  19. I am so sorry for the loss you and your family have had. This is an immensely valuable post that will help me when I am presented with such a situation in the future. Thank you for sharing. X

  20. I agree with everything Lucy shared. My wonderful Dad died 3 weeks and 4 days ago. I have cried every single day except for one and on that one day, I felt so guilty for not crying (even though my sweetheart of a father would hate me feeling sad OR guilty).

    These are hard times. The love of others helps.

  21. ceciel says...

    thanks, jo. i emailed you about this and maybe others did too–after reading the post i was moved to write my aunt (who already received a card from me shortly after my uncle died in april) to share with her how she and my uncle have touched my life. thank you to you and lucy for opening your hearts to strangers. the honesty is appreciated.

  22. Maureen Kennedy says...

    I wondered if I might incorporate these ideas into a handout to use when I help people when they are grieving. Thank you for sharing. This is a loss for you too as his sister in law and the sadness you must feel for your sister.

  23. Brit says...

    Crying. And holding my loves a little bit tighter. Thank you for the gift of appreciation tonight.

  24. Leah says...

    My heart goes out to your sister for her loss. I just read the poem by Mary Jean Irion that she submitted during your baby shower and it seems all the more poignant and important now.

  25. tammy says...

    it was so nice to read this this morning. I lost my husband at the end of June. everything you write is so true. I loved receiving the sweet cards each day and was saddened as they slowly began to dwindle from my mailbox. I have the cards
    in a basket in the library and feel comforted by them each day. the most precious ones are those that convey a memory of ronnie or express the sender’s sadness over his passing. thank you for this post and prayers of comfort to Lucy.
    earth has no sorrow heaven can’t heal…crowder
    love knows not its depth until the hour of separation…Khalil Gibran

  26. Kate says...

    I lost my father at the age of 10, 24 years ago. To this day, I love when I run into someone whose life he impacted or who has a new story to tell me – 24 years later! I hope Lucy and Paul’s daughter learns about her father both through family stories and through the stories of those whose lives he touched, no matter how many years have gone by.

  27. I’m so glad you shared this for people to consider if ever they need to write a condolence note or card. My little sister passed away this year, and we received a card from her college tutor… Who wrote my name as “Emma” in the card. I’d like to add to your list — “make sure you know the family members correct names.” I agree with your point, say you’ll never forget them. It brings me comfort knowing my sister had such an affect on different people in her short lifetime. Thanks for sharing! X

  28. Ana says...

    A beautiful post. A couple of months ago I found out the father of a highschool friend had passed, and I didn’t know what to do/say, or even IF I should reach out, because we have grown appart in the past 10 years. I finally did, through a short private Facebook message, saying how sorry I was and that I had very fond memories of him and what a great dad he was. I got a grateful reply almost immediately, which taught me that in this kind of situation you should ALWAYS reach out.

  29. This was lovely (and heartbreaking) to have a glimpse into Lucy’s grief and the love that people sent her way. Thank you. I will bookmark this for when I can’t think of the words I need.

  30. Briana says...

    I just wanted to say thank you for sharing this. Last year a close friends father died and I really struggled over what to say, do, write… everything felt like not enough. I actually looked to your blog to see if you had offered any advice. Anyway, I really appreciate your sister opening up and sharing. This is such a lovely post.

  31. ColineL says...

    Thank you so much for this post and thank you to your sister for sharing this with us. Finding the right words to say to someone in grief always feels like failing to do something right. It’s one of the rare situations where I feel like words have lost all of their power. Thank you for letting us know that even in the never ending hole of grief there is still a place for words.

  32. This is all wonderful. I lost my dad in a car accident 3 months ago, and all of these things ring true for me when I think back about the support we received. We kept every single card we received, and many of them were so unexpected. They were people I hadn’t heard from in years, but they took the time to write me about my dad. I absolutely loved hearing stories about my dad, especially stories from when he was my age (29). It made us laugh and cry and just generally feel closer to him.

    A pastor my parents met 40 years ago when they were newlyweds (and haven’t seen since) wrote a note about my dad to the pastor doing my dad’s memorial service, and he opened the service by reading it. None of us knew about the letter and my mom was blown away that 1) he remembered them 2) he took the time to write his memories and 3) he found their current pastor to send the memory to directly.

    Offering to help in a specific way is another great tip. Offer to bring dinner, do the grocery shopping, take the kids off their hands, take your friend for something distracting (pedicure, movie, shopping). Some of my mom’s college buddies wrote notes asking her to come visit, and she plans to take them up on the opportunity as a way to fill her time without my dad. Another friend literally sent tickets for our whole family to join him for a college football game in honor of my dad.

    The last thing I would add is that you don’t even have to know the person who needs consoling well to have a big impact. One of the most important notes I received was from a high school classmate whom I didn’t know very well. She saw that my dad passed on Facebook and wrote me this long, heartfelt note about going to school together and how heartbroken she is about my dad (10+ years after we last spoke). Some coworkers I don’t know very well wrote lovely cards that meant a lot to me, even with simple words of condolences. The simple gesture of acknowledging the grief, even if you aren’t close friends or didn’t know the person who passed, really shows that person your true character.

  33. these are all such great tips. when my mother was diagnosed with cancer nine years ago (she is still alive THANK GOODNESS!), so many people didn’t reach out to her because they didn’t know what to say. i learned from that to ALWAYS reach out when someone i know (even if i barely know them) is grieving or going through a hard time. it is always appreciated, no matter how big or small the gesture. lucy’s tips are great. i’m so sorry to your whole family for the losses you’ve experienced in the last year.

  34. Johanna says...

    This comes at a perfect time. A friend’s mother just passed suddenly and we are planning to send a card. Thank you!

  35. NicoleD says...

    Lucy, you have so much strength, I can tell from just these few words. My best wishes are with you.

  36. Lucy says...

    This was so incredibly moving to read. Lucy, I’m so terribly sorry for your loss. I always thought Paul had the most awesome beard and looked super cool on Jo’s posts x

  37. Lauren says...

    I live in Charleston so there have been a lot of opportunities to write condolences for the 9 Emmanuel victims.it felt silly at first but then just knowing that one more name of someone who cared would be listed for the family..it made me feel like I was helping them in their grief in a very, very small way.

  38. Roxana says...

    Thank you for sharing this. So beautiful and touching, and true.

    Lucy, I am so sorry for your loss. I don’t know you and never met Paul, but it sounds like he was a wonderful husband, father and doctor. He must be very deeply missed by you and all who knew and loved him. I pray that you will know the balm that is God’s love and peace.

  39. Melissa Beer says...

    This is SO helpful. It seems as though our community has been experiencing a lot of death lately, and it can sometimes feel as if I’m not sure how to express my condolences. Such a wonderful idea. Thank you both for being so open and honest. It sounds like Paul is a special man. :)

  40. oli says...

    Thank you so much for sharing. It was lovely and touching.

  41. This was helpful and beautiful. Thanks to you and your sister. xo

  42. Mary says...

    thanks so much to you and your brave sister for sharing this. very helpful and I appreciate these words so much. I have two such notes to write and was wondering what would be best to say. thanks.

  43. Helen says...

    This past year I’ve had to write several condolence notes and often wondered if what I was writing was too cheesy or cliche. Sometimes I’d think “they don’t want another I’m sorry for your loss” and didn’t even mention it at all when we met! Horrible! Now I know. This blog post really helps!

  44. Molly Paulick says...

    Thank you so much for this post. I remember being so touched and saddened to hear about Paul and Lucy from your blog and read his beautiful essay. In some way, it stirred up my heart for what was to happen to my family a few months later. He seemed like an amazing, incredible person. My prayers for comfort and thoughts go out to your family.

    I just lost my sister from a car accident one month ago this week and I echo all of the above sentiments. I just remember the first few days how much I needed to be around people and now a month in, to still being on their minds and still receiving cards, meals, texts, prayers and scriptures means the world. People saying they were/are praying for us deeply encourages us and makes us look beyond this present darkness and onto the hope that we have that is eternal. Here is the verse that I am clinging to at the moment:

    2 Corinthians 4:16-18
    “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

    I just posted a Facebook note about our grieving process one month later: https://www.facebook.com/notes/10153538057422661/?pnref=story

    Thank you as always, Joanna, for being so transparent and a source of good in the world. I always love reading your posts and have been following you since Toby was born! I was a senior in college and have followed you as I made my transition into adulthood, marriage and now as we start to think of a family of our own. I am so thankful for your blog and the joy, practical advice, and raw emotion that comes from it. Your writing always makes me feel at home.

    Molly

  45. This brought tears to my eyes. I still can’t imagine how Lucy is dealing with all of this. I didn’t even know Paul and I still think of him often after reading his NYT essays, so I know that he will live on in more than just his family’s memory.

  46. Thank you so much to you and your sister for sharing this. It made me cry but was a good reminder about keeping it real and showing empathy. Very touching!

  47. lovely writing about something that is quite hard to write about. You may want to look at make this image pinnable on Pinterest. I have pinned it even though the image will not show because I think many people struggle about what to say and how to behave. I have lost both my dad and a cousin in the last 10 months and I have been at both ends of the process. equally hard. Saying that, family and friends appreciate every smile, word, phone call, invitation to dinner afterwards when things settle. My mum’s friends are still fantastic at looking after her. well done for tackling this subject. Gaelle

  48. Nataly says...

    Sending strength and light to Lucy and your family…

  49. Nataly says...

    Joanna, thank you so much for sharing these stories, you have no idea how much they help me (my mom is currently battling ALS).

  50. Naomi says...

    Dear Lucy, Paul will remain in our hearts and memories forever. I think of him a lot, smiling when I think of sitting next to him at Stanford games… Crying when I realize he won’t be there next season. It’s just a little part of who he was, but it’s the part I know the best. Much love. <3

  51. Berenice says...

    “You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved.  But this is also the good news.  They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up.  And you come through.  It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

    — Anne Lamott

  52. BW says...

    I love this so, so much. I have wondered about many of the issues Lucy addresses here, and I’ve hoped I haven’t stepped out of line when sending a card to someone I’m not close with during a difficult time. This is a beautiful set of guidelines to go by.

    I’m so sorry about losing Paul. He sounded like such an inspired, thoughtful, intellectually brilliant man. His essays touched me deeply and I still think of him and Lucy and their baby. Thank you for sharing this.