“The public papers, my dear friend, announce the fatal event of which your letter of October the 20th had given me ominous foreboding. Tried myself in the school of affliction, by the loss of every form of connection which can rive the human heart, I know well, and feel what you have lost, what you have suffered, are suffering, and have yet to endure. The same trials have taught me that for ills so immeasurable, time and silence are the only medicine.” -Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson sent this letter of condolence to John Adams on November 13, 1818 upon learning of the death of John’s wife Abigail. His note became a lasting poetic expression of support during a time of grief.
Most people get far more tongue-tied in their own attempts at sharing sympathy with a friend or colleague. In fact, the time-honored tradition of writing a condolence letter is on the wane, mirroring a decline of letter-writing overall. In recent years, expressions of condolence are more often relayed via email or Facebook. And greeting cards with pre-populated sentiments sometimes help people convey what is often hard to express in one’s own words.
But putting pen to paper to craft a handwritten, heartfelt condolence letter is still a beautiful and lasting way to show support for someone in a time of grief – and well worth the time and effort, said Amy Cunningham, owner of New York City-based Fitting Tribute Funeral Services and co-editor of The Inspired Funeral blog.
“Death can awaken us, if we allow it, to timeless methods of meaningful correspondence,” she said.
Cunningham spoke during the recent Reimagine End of Life event in New York offering guidance for those who are intimidated. Here is some of the advice she shared:
Getting started. Sketch out a rough draft and mull it over before committing it to the page. Try using ivory manuscript paper, which harkens back to an earlier time, or a blank notecard for the letter itself.
What to write. Just as grief takes many forms, there are many ways to express condolence. Try sharing a memory or a story, or even a small observation about the person who died. For the person reading the letter, such stories can offer a new window into the life of their loved one: “Like facets on a diamond, they give the grieving person another way of looking at the life,” Cunningham said.
Some technical notes. Don’t be afraid to use the word “died” instead of “passed away.” And don’t be too concerned about timing. As a rule, cards and letters are best mailed soon after receiving the news, but it’s okay if they’re late. “There’s no such thing as a belated condolence letter,” Cunningham said.
Things to avoid. “I know how you feel” or “This is God’s plan” can come across as hollow.
Also avoid saying “Let me know what I can do for you.” Such a request can be overwhelming for someone in the throes of grief. Better to say “Let me mow your lawn this summer,” or “I will stop by with Sunday dinner.”
Instead of saying “I’m sorry for your loss,” try “I’m here for you. “That’s a powerful statement of empathy and support,” Cunningham said.
Tone. “Be sweet and positive,” even if you know that the person had a difficult relationship with the deceased. This is not a time to delve into the complexity of their relationship. “Sincerity and compassion win the day,” Cunningham said.
For more tips, visit The Inspired Funeral
Tobi Elkin is a versatile New York-based writer, editor, interviewer, and advocate with an interest in intergenerational stories, documenting the lives of seniors, and helping them share their stories. Her writing can be found here.