Sympathy Notes: Do's and Don'ts

Posted by Judy on Sep 7th 2015


  • Write soon after hearing the news. Handwrite the note if possible.
  • Simply and directly express your sorrow. When you overstate things you run the risk of saying something meaningless or insensitive.
  • Use the name of the bereaved in the salutation and the name of the deceased in the first sentence or two of the note.
  • If appropriate, tell how you learned about the news.
  • Use a phrase such as "I don't know what to say," or "Words are inadequate at a time like this," rather than talking about how difficult it is to write a note.
  • If you are shocked, say so, but avoid being excessively sentimental or sensational.
  • If you feel the need to acknowledge someone's sorrow, use phrasing such as "I cannot imagine what you are going through," or "I cannot imagine your sorrow."
  • Observe the line between sympathy (respecting people's ability to survive an event) and pity (thinking that the event has beaten them).
  • Make a specific offer of help if you are in a position to do so. "I'll call next week to schedule a time when I can baby sit." "I'll cover for you while you're out of the office.
  • Make sure you haven't written anything awkward or tactless by reading the note as though you are the one receiving it.


  • Say too much by offering clichés, advice, or inappropriate comments.
  • Say too little by sending only a greeting card with no personal message. Add two or three personal lines of your own.
  • Use overly dramatic language, such as "terrible tragedy" or "awful news."
  • Use irritating phrase such as "You must be grieving," or "You must be lonely." Of course they are.
  • Attempt to interpret the event. "It was bound to happen." "It was God's will," or "It was her time." Other phrases such as "He isn't in pain anymore" of "She's in a better place," may seem comforting, but they minimize the loss.
  • Tell someone "I know how you feel," unless you have been through an identical situation. Even with that, people grieve differently.
  • Avoid the too-general offer of help, "If there is anything I can do, please let me know." It gives a grieving person one more decision to face.
  • Say anything religious unless you know the bereaved well and are absolutely sure it will be appropriate.