You need to know how to write a condolence letter, but there’s no perfect thing to say when someone dies. There are no magic just-right words that will erase another person’s pain, or change their reason for feeling it.
But there are a lot of wrong things to say.
“Don’t say, ‘Your loved one is in a better place,’” agree Litsa Williams and Eleanor Haley, two grief-focused mental health professionals who host What’s Your Grief Podcast.
“Don’t try to make any comparisons” between their loss and your loss says Elaine Swann, an etiquette expert.
And “don’t assume you know how they feel,” says Vanessa Rush Southern, a Unitarian Universalist minister.
Writing a note in response to loss of life can feel like both a pitifully minor act and a really difficult one. But our experts shared that reaching out through a note to a grieving person is a crucial opportunity to make sure that person feels connected.
As we continue to weather life during the coronavirus pandemic, more and more of us will either experience tragic loss ourselves or know someone who is going through a lot of pain. Knowing how to write a condolence letter can’t protect us or the people we love from grief, but writing a good one can make them feel as though we’re there with them in their time of need.
Handwritten card, or text message?
If you send a handwritten note, it will be beautiful but slow. If you send a text, it will be immediate but it won’t show as much care. So what’s the right thing to do?
“You should do both,” says Swann, the etiquette expert. “The way you handle that is you send the text message or the email, and you tell them, ‘Please accept my condolences. I’ll be thinking about your or praying for you. May I please have your mailing address?’” Don’t burden them with the explanation of why you need their address, Swann adds—just follow up with a written note, and if you can, flowers.
Southern, the minister, agrees that a written card is an important gesture. “Something about the human touch, the realness of it, is an antidote to loss which always feels somewhat unreal, I think. I mean how can someone be there one moment and gone the next?”
What can I possibly say?
Southern offers a simple formula: “One, express your own sadness or shock at hearing the news. Two, don’t force your emotions on the person grieving. I prefer to just say, ‘I cannot imagine how you are feeling.’ And then anything I do know for sure, for example, ‘I know what a big part of your life your grandmother was.’ Three, offer any and all support they might need. And four, let them know you are absolutely keeping them in your thoughts and prayers (if you pray).”
Swann suggests a condolence flow chart—if you didn’t know the person who died well, you should keep your note very simple, she says. “Express your sympathies. Don’t—do not say anything about comparisons, like, ‘I have an uncle who also passed away so I know what you’re going through.’ Just let them know that you’re thinking about them or praying for them. It really is the fact that you thought of this person and that they are receiving a note from you that is more important than what you write.” If you did know the person well, Swann says, you should feel free to add a memory you have of them. “It’s that sort of thing, sharing those fond memories, that can really brighten the person’s day in an instant—you might end up sharing something they never knew about their loved one.”
And Williams and Haley, the grief counselors, offer this template: ”Dear ___________, Offer condolences. Talk about the person who died. Offer something specific. Close. Sign.”
Need more? Their blog shares specific examples, plus a list of phrases to avoid (“I know how you feel” and “She’s in a better place,” for starters) and phrases to consider if you’re at a loss for words (it’s not stealing to borrow sentiments like “We remember him and speak of him often” or “Just talk about your son whenever you feel like it.”)
“Depending on your relationship with the person, after you send something and communicate with them, ask them if a service is going to take place,” Swann says. Right now, any funeral or memorial service will likely take place virtually, making it all the more important for the grieving person to know that you care.
After the service, the real work of supporting a grieving person begins.
“People in deep grief often experience a kind of disorientation,” says Southern. “They cannot think clearly, and they can forget basic things like eating. Offers of help are great, but one good tip is to keep them simple and specific. For instance, if you want to bring a meal, find out their allergies or dietary restrictions and then make a specific offer: ‘Hanna, I’d like to make you supper and bring it over one night. I can do it on Monday or Wednesday of next week. I can bring you either my famous chicken soup and homemade sourdough, or I can pick up your favorite Chinese food dishes at the restaurant you like downtown.’” Be direct. “People feel less uncomfortable asking when you make a specific offer of help,” Southern says.
The continued follow-through, Williams and Haley say, is their number-one tip, a gesture more important than any etiquette or beautiful words. “Don’t just be the person who sends a card immediately after the loss. Be the person who checks in a month or two later, or around the person’s birthday or the holidays, or who remembers to send a note for the one-year anniversary.”
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
Originally Appeared on Glamour