It got me thinking about sympathy cards and how important they are. The challenge is people are so afraid of saying the wrong thing, they often do nothing. We talked to the experts on how to write a heartfelt sympathy card. Here's what to include (or leave out).
"Grieving families are overwhelmed with decisions and feelings and this can often be a confusing time for them," says counsellor Julienne Derichs. The person you're sending the note to may know many Katies or Rachels, so "be sure to clearly identify yourself—use your surname if you are not an immediate family member, and make sure your return address is available on the envelope." If the grieving person knows you by your maiden name, feel free to include that, too, for clarification.
In terms of timing, Derichs suggests sending a note as soon as you hear about the death. I received my friend's note with the photo soon after my dad passed, and it really meant a lot to me. You don't even have to buy a special sympathy card: "You could always compose a note on personal stationery," says Derichs.
She also suggests writing something specific in the note about the person who passed, such as "I am so sorry for your loss. I remember when, (share a memory of the deceased, however small)." This lets the mourner know that the person who passed was loved or cherished by more than just his or her immediate family.
If you want to help out in some tangible way, be specific and remember to follow up. You can say something like, "I am here for you and I will check in with you next week." Derichs says to avoid saying "If you need anything, let me know," as most people will not ask. It's much better to say "I'll come and take you out for coffee or a walk," or "I'll bring you dinner next Tuesday night".
It might also be nice to do something different than everyone else. If, for example, the community is gathering to help the family with meals, consider something other than a casserole. "Offering to mow the lawn, rake leaves, shovel snow or wash the cars can be helpful," says Dr Stephanie Hartselle.
You can also close the sympathy note by reassuring the person grieving takes time. Candyce Ossefort-Russell, a licensed professional counselor with the DEEP Center for Counseling and Psychotherapy Training in Austin, also suggests including an ending line such as, "Be kind to yourself—grief takes time, and you deserve good care. I'll continue to hold you in my heart."
What not to do
As natural as it might seem, "avoid any comparison to any loss you've had in your life. This is this family's time to grieve, not a time for you to make this about your experiences," says Hartselle.
Also, sometimes less is more. "I advise people against expressing that the deceased is in a better place or is relieved of pain, as the family may not believe this or feel this way," says Hartselle. If you don't know what to say, keep it short and sweet.
And much as you want to say the right thing, don't obsess about it so much that you end up not doing anything. "There are no magic words, but most people appreciate honesty and caring and will remember that more than what you say," says psychologist Mary Kelly Blakeslee.