What to Write in a Sympathy Card to Offer Meaningful Support

November 9, 2021

By Arricca Elin Sansone from The Pioneer Woman Lifestyle Blog, featuring Dr. Helen Harris—

It's never easy to know what to write in a sympathy card for a friend, family member, or coworker. But even if you feel uncomfortable or aren’t sure what to say, that doesn’t mean you should procrastinate or not say anything at all.

"The most important thing is to acknowledge the other person’s loss. People who are grieving need to feel connected and know they’re not alone," says Helen Harris, EdD, who teaches about and researches loss and grief at Garland School of Social Work at Baylor University. "Even if we’re not able to be there physically, a card acknowledges that a person’s pain and loss matters to us."

Whether you’re wondering what to write in a sympathy card or what to say in person to a friend or family member who is bereaved, here's what you should consider.

When should you send a sympathy card?

It’s customary to send a card immediately, though the early days following a death generally are consumed by things such as planning the funeral, dealing with paperwork, and so on, Harris explains. The grieving person may only glance at the card then, but he or she may return to read it again later at a time when seeking comfort. However, if time got away from you and weeks (or even months) have passed, you should still send a card or note saying you’ve been thinking of them.

It’s also thoughtful to send a card as the person continues the grief journey in the months ahead. “The whole first year after a death is a series of losses,” says Harris. “There’s the first birthday, the first Thanksgiving, the first anniversary, and so on.”

Consider writing a short note saying something like, “I know your son’s birthday is coming up, and I just wanted you to know I’m keeping you close in my thoughts.” Don’t worry that you’re going to upset the person; what’s often more upsetting to a grieving person is if no one mentions the loved one’s name ever again. “People say it feels as if everyone else has forgotten their loved one as the months pass,” says Harris. Acknowledging that loss doesn’t go away just because time has passed can be exactly what people need to hear when anniversaries loom.

What is a good sympathy message?

Grief often forces us to confront or recall our own losses, so we may have a tendency to talk about our own feelings. “But we’re most helpful when we focus on their grief, not ours,” says Harris. Frame your comments so that you’re offering support, not your own experiences. For example, say something compassionate such as, “Our thoughts are with you at this difficult time” instead of how sad you are or shocked you were to hear the news.

But if it’s an unexpected death, it’s fine to speak the truth gently, says Harris. Say something like, “I can only imagine how devastated you must feel, and my heart is hurting with yours.” However, don’t get too anxious about finding the perfect words; what’s more important is showing your sincerity and caring.

Here’s what not to say in a sympathy card.

Of course, you would never mean to be hurtful, but glossing over someone’s pain with pat sayings— even inadvertently— isn’t helpful. Avoid comments, however well-meaning, such as:

  • “At least he/she isn’t suffering anymore.” (That doesn’t take away the pain the person left behind feels.)
  • “You’re still young enough to have more kids” or “At least you have two other kids.” (This dismisses the loss as if it means nothing.)
  • “You can get another pet.” (This ignores the unique spot this pet had in the person’s life.)
  • “I know just how you feel.” (We all grieve differently, and no two circumstances are ever the same.)

    Instead, say something such as:

    • “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
    • “In the hard moments, I hope you will find memories that bring you comfort.”
    • “I’m thinking about you/ praying for you/ holding you close in my heart right now.”

      It’s also lovely to share a memory, such as “I’ll always remember your dad’s sense of humor” or “Your daughter was always there to help at school events” or “Your husband had such a great laugh.” If you didn’t know the person, it’s appropriate to say something such as, “I’m sure your mom was an amazing person to raise such a caring and kind woman like you.” And even if a person’s relationship with the deceased was conflicted, that doesn’t erase the loss; you still should send condolences, saying something like, “I can’t imagine how you feel, but please know you’re in my thoughts.”

      Follow up with a tangible offer of support.

      We often tell a grieving person, "If there’s anything I can do for you, call me." But that’s probably not going to happen, and, honestly, the person may not even know what he or she needs during this confusing time. Instead of an open-ended offer, suggest specific ways you can support them, says Harris, such as:

      • Can I mow your lawn/ rake leaves/ shovel snow for you?
      • Can I take your daughter to soccer practice?
      • Can I pick up a few items at the grocery store when I go later today?

        You can send a card for any type of loss.

        The death of a loved one is shattering, but there are many other losses in life that can be difficult to bear when you feel alone, says Harris. "There's a lot of disenfranchised grief in the world," says Harris. A divorce, job loss, a difficult medical diagnosis, and even conflicted societal attitudes about a COVID death can cause people to feel their grief is not validated, says Harris. Sending a note shows "it matters to me that you are hurting," no matter what the circumstances.