The Architecture of a Sympathy Note, Heart to Heart Communication

Your preference is a short note rather than a letter.  You may wish to write a brief note on a commercial condolence card.

Dear Keith,

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

Our family was deeply saddened today when we heard from Bill that you had lost your mother.

  1. Express your sympathy.

We are all thinking of you and send our heartfelt sympathy.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased or the bereaved or recount a memory about the deceased.

In the years we lived next door, your mother was a wonderful neighbor!  She was always warm, gracious and ready to lend a hand.  We feel fortunate to have known her.

  1. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase

With affection and deepest condolence.

Just a few words..samples of expressions that might capture your feelings

  • In this time of your deep loss, we extend to you our sorrow and tender understanding.
  • What a terrible shock.  It is difficult to convey our deep sadness but our thoughts and love are with you.
  • Feeling very close to you and sharing your sorrow.  Will call soon, once your heart has had a little rest.
  • Grief is a heartache that slowly heals.  Your lovely daughter will be sadly missed, but she will always be in our/your heart.
  • Our sympathies.  May the gentle sunshine of memories be a light in this hour of darkness.
  • Your dear grandfather is gone from our touch, but never our hearts.  The loss is more ours than his.  Let us remember him through the echo of his laughter.
  • Please accept deepest sympathies.  The healing will require courage and patience.  Our prayers/love/thought are with you in this time of grief.
  • We have just learned with profound sorrow of the death of your mother and send sincere condolences.
  • Our thoughts and love are with you.  We have so many wonderful memories of times with your brother.  He was a very precious gift to us all.
  • You are remembered with warmth, sympathy, and understanding in this time of sorrow.
  • I am so sorry to hear of the death of your father.  Please accept my profound sympathy and my prayers.  God bless you.
  • Thinking of you at this time and extending our heartfelt understanding and sympathy.  We have lost a wonderful friend.
  • We are saddened by the news of Ronald’s passing.  Please accept our sincere sympathies.  Our professional/business community has lost a valuable and respected member and we have lost a cherished friend.  We will miss him deeply.

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.


The Architecture of a Condolence Letter, Heart to Heart Communication

A written expression of condolence is a powerful, loving gesture. It is becoming a lost practice despite it’s unique ability to provide comfort. It is worth the effort.  Writing allows you to carefully reflect and craft your loving message.  This is an expression of what you want to say, the sentiments you want to share.  Form and format are clearly secondary.    Once you have your thoughts, feelings and memories in focus, you might use this format to help put them into a structure.  Perhaps this format will help stimulate your thinking and organize your thoughts.

  1. Acknowledge the loss. Note how you learned about the news.   Indicate dismay at hearing about the loss.  It sets the purpose and tone of the letter.
  2. Express your sympathy. Don’t hesitate to use the word death.  Share your own sadness to remind them they are not completely alone in their suffering.
  3. Note special qualities of the deceased. They may be special attributes, personality characteristics, contributions.  Remind the bereaved that the deceased was appreciated by others.
  4. Recount a memory about the deceased… how the deceased evoked your appreciation, affection or respect; how they touched and influenced your life; humorous incidents.
  5. Note special qualities of the bereaved…strong feelings of inadequacy often surface and the bereaved can beel shaky about their own basic abilities. At the time, it can cause them to doubt their most basic abilities.  And their usual capacity or self-appreciation and self-love.  Remind them of their traids that serve them through adversity in the past such as resilience, patience, competence, religious devotion, optimisim or trusting nature.
  6. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement. If there is a genuine desire to help, make a specific offer. The numbness of early grief can often blank out the general offers of help.  Once offered, be sure to follow through.
  7. Close with a thought word or phrase.


  1. My affection respects to you and yours.
  2. My affection respects to you and yours.
  3. Our life is with you always.
  4. You are in my thoughts and prayers
  5. You know you have my deepest sympathy and my love and friendship always.
  6. My heart and my tears are with you.
  7. We share in your grief and send you our love.
  8. We offer our affectionate sympathy and many beautiful memories
  9. My thoughts are with you now, and I send you my deepest sympathy.
  10. We all join in sending you our heartfelt love.

Sample: When you knew the deceased:

Dear Keith

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

My heart ached when Tim called this morning and I heard the news of Ruth’s death.  Though not unexpected, the final word was still felt as a blow.

  1. Express your sympathy

Words seem so inadequate, but with this letter comes my heart filled with love and sympathy on the loss of your beloved wife.  I loved her too.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased.

Ruth was a vibrant, talented, caring woman and dearly loved by everyone whose life she touched.  But for me, she was even more.  She was a rare and cherished friend.  Through our friendship, my vision of beauty and possibilities of life grew.

  1. Recount a memory about the decease.

As I write, flooded with precious memories, I am recalling the day when Ruth and I were driving to the cost for what we thought would be a lazy afternoon of beachcombing.  Instead, we had a flt tire.  You’ve never seen a pair of more fumble-fingered, crease covered laughing clowns than we were that day, but we did it!  And we made it to the beach just in time for a glorious sunset.

  1. Note special qualities of the bereaved.

I know you will miss her deeply, but I also know that you recognize the blessings of the beautiful years you shared.  You were always a source of strength and courage to Ruth.  I recall her once saying that your love of life and enduring optimism brought her closer to God.  I trust these same qualities will help support and guide you during this oh-so-difficult time.

  1. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement.

You know you have my sympathy and my friendship and I would be grateful if you would turn to me for any help I might give.  I’ll call this week end to see if there’s anything I can do.

  1. Close with a thought word or phrase.

My prayers and thoughts are with you

Sample: When you didn’t know the person who died

Dear Keith

  1. Acknowledge the loss.

This morning Mr Moore told us the sad news of your wife’s sudden death.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased.

I extend my heartfelt sympathy to you and your family.  The loss must touch you very deeply as you face these first numbing days of grief.

  1. Note special qualities of the deceased.
  2. Recount a memory about the deceased…

Although I never met your wife, I was always impressed with the loving mention of her in your conversations.

  1. Note special qualities of the bereaved

While our relationship has been largely in the office, I have seen you handle challenging situations time and again.  During this difficult period, I know you will draw on these same deep personal resources so many of us have come to respect and admire. 

  1. Offer assistance…This is not a requirement.

During your absence, we will address your…………………

  1. Close with a thought word or phrase.

Keep in mind that this office is filled with people who care about you and are thinking about you in your sorrow.

Sample: The most famous of all condolence letters
…to Mrs Lydia Bixby.  Note the elements in action.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the war Department a statement of the Adjutant-General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.  I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.  But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.  I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

  1. Lincoln

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.


Resting vs. Stuck

There are times when resting is healing.  There are times when resting becomes stuck.

Stuck is a control issue.  Stress causes a sense of powerlessness so our minds go into a heavy-duty control mode.  Holding tight to what is known feels safer.  To let go might feel like powerless chaos.  Our minds trick us into thinking that by holding on, we are in control of something we cannot control-the loss of a loved one. It takes conscious choice in dealing with reality.  Control is actually letting go.

Self awareness:

Has self preservation turned into self-absorption?

Who am I really?  Am I extremely intolerant of others response to me?

Do I demand sympathy? Do I have difficulty with anything new?

St Francis prayer:  “Accept the things you cannot change and have the courage to change the things you can.”

“If There’s Anything I Can Do…How to Help Someone who has been Bereaved” by Caroline Doughty, White Ladder Press, Britain, 2007 (insight and suggestions for helping widows with young children)

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.

“When a Spouse Dies, What I didn’t Know about helping myself and others through grief,” by Barbara R Wheeler, DSW, Plain Sight Publishing, 2012.

“Transitions, Making sense of life’s changes” by William Bridges, Lifelong books, 2004.


Restocking your “Cope Chest” with Your Own Lifelines

Attend to yourself; attending to others is possible but very difficult

Being kind and tolerant to yourself is more healing than self-criticism

Exercise lifts mood, releases stress but does not solve the issues.

Busy is a helpful distraction from the pain.  Balance the pain with a counterweight of quiet time to do the inner work.

Journaling…Write it out.  Get it out.  Look at your thinking.  It’s a physical method for the inner work.

Music can be comforting.  It can be warmth that nourishes the soul.

Accept help from others. Grief is a lonely place.  Allow others to learn, grow and prepare for their own grief by sharing your experience. Seek a support group .

There is no best way:  It’s our personal responsibility to manage our pain.  Each of us is ultimately in charge of our own healing.

“When a Spouse Dies, What I didn’t Know about helping myself and others through grief,” by Barbara R Wheeler, DSW, Plain Sight Publishing, 2012.


Understanding the Emotions of Grief

Emotions might follow a flow: shock, numbness and disbelief; experiencing the pain; acceptance.

Shock, numbness and disbelief

Mind and spirit go into shock with a severe emotional jolt.  Emily Dickinson called it, “the hour of lead”.

The first and nature response is to doubt or deny.  It’s an unconscious way of preventing emotional overload.  It helps to face the loss bit by bit as one gathers inner resources and external supports.

Numbness is also a buffer that makes it possible to do what must be done in the immediate aftermath of a personal loss:  make arrangements, take care of daily needs, attending to others.  This feeling of unreal and emotional distance is a temporary support.  Periods of clarity can weave with the inability to think, restlessness and confusion as the reality sinks it.  It’s the waffling between “I’m OK, I’m not OK” until the numbness is replaced by the strong presence of emotion.

Experience the pain.  Numbness gives way to feeling.  When grief reaches the heart, the real pain begins.  The reality of loss begins a reminder of a time that once was. Four strong emotions intertwine in endless and often troubling patterns…fears, sadness, anger and guilt.  Emotions serve their purpose and subside in time.

  • Fears come and go without warning and surface without predictability.  Fear of being alone is what motivates relationships with others.
  • Sadness is often the consuming emptiness.  Hopelessness and helplessness spill forth at unexpected times.  Enjoyment is lost, then a fleeting sensation.  Tears, though often embarrassing, are part of the healing process. Sadness redefines priorities, goals and sense of purpose.
  • Anger may be rational and focused or irrational and broad.  Feelings of irritability, bitterness, hostility and aggression are often so surprising that mourners may fear themselves on the verge of a breakdown.  Powerful energies of stress are released when issues reach a point of resolve.
  • Guilt, anger turned toward ourselves, can be disabling.  It erodes self esteem and evokes self-condemnation.  If not resolved, the healing cannot be complete.  Surprisingly, guilt is a natural response when one first begins to feel happy again after a long path of grieving.
  • Amidst all the emotional turmoil, physical and intellectual stress can add layers of complications and distractions.  There are physical complaints, emotional swings, thinking disturbances and changes in behavior.  Sleep disturbance, excess energy/lethargy, overeating/lack of appetite, confused thinking, changed behavior…Threads of stress weave together to form the fabric of mourning.

“The Art of Condolence, what to write, what to say, what to do at a time of loss” by Leonard Zunin, MD and Hilary Stanton Zunin, Harper Collins Publishers, 1991.