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Common Questions about Conveying Sympathy & Writing Sympathy Notes


Etiquette and Advice from the Emily Post Institute

Q. I just learned that a friend's husband passed away. Is it OK to send her an email expressing sympathy?

A. If this is a way you often communicate with your friend, and you're certain that she frequently uses e-mail, you can precede a phone call or written condolence with an e-mail. This is an immediate and non-intrusive way to show that you are thinking of her in the initial days following her loved one's death. But an e-mailed message should be followed by a handwritten note and, whenever possible, attendance at the funeral or visitation.

Q. My co-worker's mother just died and I want to write him a sympathy note. I just don't know how to get started. What should I say?

A. When writing a sympathy note, say what you truly feel. A single sincere line expressing the genuine feeling you had for the deceased is worth more than an eloquently written treatise. As you write, don't dwell on the details of an illness or the manner of death. Nor should you suggest that the loss is a "blessing in disguise." Do, however, ask if there is something you can do to help.

Following are two examples of short but appropriate sympathy notes:

Dear MaryAnn,

We were so very sad to hear of Jack's death. If Keith or I can help by shopping, running errands, or doing anything else for you, I honestly hope that you'll call on us. In the meantime, you are in our thoughts and prayers.

With deepest sympathy,


Dear Mrs. Phillips,

I know how little words written on a page can mean to you at such a time, but I still want to let you know that you are in my thoughts. I would also like to help you in any way I can, so please don't hesitate to call on me. Your mother held a special place in our hearts for as long as we knew her. The countless hours she spent with our son Jordan will always be remembered, and we will miss her nurturing presence very much.

With deepest sympathy,

Enos Walker

Q. My husband and I were attending a relative's visiting hours, and my husband said something to the spouse like "It's a mercy he's out of his pain."" I told him he shouldn't have said that and he disagrees.

A. Offering words of sympathy to a grieving individual is never easy. Tension often accompanies a conversation because you're just not sure what to say. Here are some tips:

Don't say:
"He's in a better place."
"Call me if there is anything I can do."
"It's God's will."
"I know how you feel"

Do say:
"I'm so sorry about your loss."
"I'd like to bring you dinner tomorrow night. May I?"
"She was an extraordinary person."
"Please know that I am thinking of you."

Q. My best friend's mother just died. Do I send the sympathy note to my friend or her father?

A. When sending a condolence note to a friend whose parent has died, the note is usually addressed to the friend, not the surviving parent.

Q. My neighbor down the street lost her husband. I just moved here and I don't know this family well, but want to attend the memorial service. Would it be inappropriate to attend?

A. Even though you're new to the neighborhood, your neighbor would likely appreciate your expression of sympathy. You could certainly send her a personal note and even offer to help. In many locales, those who don't know each other well rally to assist bereaved neighbors in some way. Perhaps it's with a gift of food—a casserole, a fruit basket, or some brownies for the family and their visitors. Sometimes a neighbor offers to house out-of-town relatives or friends. The circumstances vary greatly, and you'll need to go with your intuition as to whether to do something and what it is you feel comfortable with.

With regard to the memorial service, check with another neighbor or look in your local newspaper for a death notice. A notice would either state the hour and location of the service-which would mean that it would be appropriate for you to attend if you wished-or "Funeral Private."