Sympathy Letters


Whenever I write a sympathy letter (by hand, and I don't ever use sympathy cards!) I try to express sincere feelings that will not only extend sympathy but also some hope. It is not an easy chore, but I want them to know I care and also understand.

These days I do not receive a reply or an acknowledgement of any kind. Are good manners out of date? Or am I simply old-fashioned?

What are your feelings on this subject?

Comments (3)
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I do not think that sympathy cards or thank you notes require a reply. Responding to a card only adds to the burden of the mourners.

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When a relative of ours passed, another family member volunteered and assumed responsibility of acknowledging every letter, every meal, every plant that was received. I thought it was brilliant. I kinda think it s/b done but considering their pain, I forgive this faux pas very quickly.

as to acknowledging thank you notes, where would it end? TY note for the TY note, followed by TY note for the TY note, followed. By TY note for the TY note, ad infinitum

it seems I send personal sympathy letters to those I know very well and cards to the rest. Consider it acceptable either way.

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I also try to write good letters of sympathy, not printed greeting cards.

I don't believe etiquette requires replies to letters of sympathy. I am very big on thank you notes. When my father died, I wrote to everyone who sent food or flowers or made a charitable donation or helped in any way, but not to those who sent cards or letters. If someone wrote something that especially touched me, I mentioned it the next time I happened to be talking or writing to them.

You wrote, "I try to express sincere feelings that will extend not only sympathy but also some hope." I'm not sure what you mean by "extending hope," and I am certain that you mean well. But be very careful. It is always a bad idea to tell people how to feel, including trying to make people see some good in something they are grieving over. They need to be sad for a while; don't rush to cheer them up or try to make them see a silver lining, even hope.

I'd be especially careful not to say anything like "they are in a better place now" or "you will see them again someday" unless you are absolutely 100% positive that the recipient believes that -- and even then, I wouldn't risk it, as this may be a moment of doubt that they need to have. Don't say that the deceased is better off now or that it's good that they aren't suffering or anything like that (the one or two I got like that -- my dad died of Alzheimer's -- far from being comforting or "hopeful," really infuriated me). Don't say that you know that things seem sad now but that you know that the sun will soon shine again; it's demeaning of their loss. Really, it's presumptuous for any of us to act as though we have any special insight into death or grief to share; it's the same mystery for all of us.

Just convey your sympathy -- not your understanding (i.e., don't tell them you "know how they feel" -- you don't) -- and let them know you care and are thinking of them. That means a great deal. We cannot change our friends' sorrow, but we can be there so they aren't alone through it.

I think the best sympathy notes are the ones that say something nice about the deceased, especially a nice memory or some character trait you admired. "I always smile when I remember the time your dad helped us build that tree house"; "Whenever I hear the word 'integrity,' I think of Sharon." You can even kind of do that if you didn't know the deceased: "Although I did not know your father, I am sure that he was very proud of you and your brother and your accomplishments"; "I didn't know your mother well, but I wish I had; she sounds like a remarkable woman." I know I treasured those.

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