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How to Write a Condolence Letter

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Tips on the lost art of how to write a condolence letter, from Leonard M. Zunin and Hilary Stanton Zunin:

  1. Acknowledge the loss. Assuming that you didn’t hear the news from the person you’re writing to, you should begin by explaining how you learned about the death and expressing your dismay. (“I was heartbroken when I heard from Bill last night about your father’s death.”)
  2. Convey your sympathy. In sincere, straightforward language, offer your sympathy and emotional support. (“No words can adequately express my sadness, but I want you to know that my thoughts and prayers are with you at this difficult time.”)
  3. Mention the special qualities of the deceased. If you knew the deceased well, describe the traits you most admired in him or her. (“Your father was not only an exceptionally generous and warmhearted man but one of the happiest I’ve ever known. He never seemed to lose his capacity to enjoy the small, simple pleasures of life.”)
  4. Recall a specific memory of the deceased. If possible, relate an anecdote that evokes the special qualities of the person. (“I remember walking through the town park just a few months ago and seeing him in the playground with his granddaughter Suzie. They were together on the seesaw and, from the look on their faces, it was hard to tell who was having more fun, the seven-year-old girl or her seventy-year-old grandpa.”)
  5. Remind the bereaved of his or her own personal strengths. The death of a loved one can render a person so emotionally fragile, so profoundly insecure, that a few reassuring words, bolstering the bereaved’s sense of self-worth, can be very important. (“From personal experience, I know how hard it is to lose a father. But I also know that, like your father, you are a person of great inner strength and resilience and that these qualities will help see you through this difficult time.”)
  6. Offer assistance. People in the early stages of grief can always use a little help dealing with the daily demands of life – cooking, cleaning, errand running, and so on. If you are ready and willing to assist in specific ways, say so. Generalized offers – “If I can help out in any way, let me know” – are much less effective and tend to ring a little hollow. (“As someone who cares deeply about you and your family, I hope you’ll allow me to help out in the coming weeks. I’ll call in a few days to see if there’s anything I can do.”)
  7. End with a thoughtful phrase. Instead of a conventional sign-off – “sincerely,” “best wishes,” “yours truly,” “warmly,” or the like – conclude with a final, heartfelt phrase. (“You know you have my deepest sympathy and my friendship always.”)

From The Art of Condolence: What to Write, What to Say, What to Do at a Time of Loss by Leonard M. Zunin and Hilary Stanton Zunin
as paraphrased by Harold Schechter in The Whole Death Catalog

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