NOTE: A shorter version of this article originally appeared in my Facebook Group: “The Art of the Heartspoken Note.”
Next to Thank You Notes, Sympathy Notes are perhaps the ones we are called on to write the most often, yet for most of us, they are the hardest to do. What do you say when you feel so helpless in the face of someone else’s loss? What good can your note really do?
First of all, just the act of writing is reaching out and giving that person a hug by mail, regardless of the words you use. I often hear that these notes are saved and read later when they can be appreciated in a less emotional time. So get over your lack of confidence at knowing what to say and just send that hug. I appreciated reader and educator Joanie Hovatter’s comment about the importance of writing sympathy notes:
For sure, writing to someone who is experiencing a difficult time is a way to touch someone’s heart.
I often take a moment before starting a sympathy note to visualize the person, putting myself in their position, and trying to imagine what might comfort me if I were receiving the note. This often helps me think of what to say. It is completely okay to start with an honest statement, “Words are simply inadequate to express all that is on my heart after learning of John’s death, but I had to let you know how much I’m thinking of you.”
Include specific happy memories of the deceased whenever possible, especially if they involve something that person has done for you. These details can be very powerful and comforting. Reader Anne Goodrich, the owner of Goodrich Design, shared this about notes she received when her father died:
My father died when I was young. One note that was so precious to me was from another young person, a neighbor who also loved my dad. She wrote about how she’d always remember even the small things about my father, like how he could perch his glasses in the middle of his forehead when he wasn’t using them, and how she marveled at the way he could read a paperback book and never crease the spine. However, no matter how brief, I treasured each note I was sent when my father died, and then later my mother.
One of the devastating things about the loss of a loved one is the idea that they will be forgotten, so many say it is immensely comforting to hear anecdotes and stories. If you don’t have your own memories, you may have heard something worth sharing about the deceased. Let the recipient know you believe the deceased person’s life made a difference and that he/she will be missed.
Former neighbor, social worker, and Master Gardener Esther Hastings Miller shared a fascinating insight into the importance of remembering and talking to survivors about those who have died:
One thing I read many years ago was that some Asian cultures have two different concepts of death. One is the death of the body, the other the death of all the people who remember that person. As long as there is anyone alive who remembers that person, they are not really gone. I have often stated this in one way or another in sympathy notes, thinking that it sounded good, at least. A few years ago I discovered how very true it is. I went to a reunion of the church I’d grown up in and so many people talked about my parents. There was even a woman there who hadn’t seen my mother since I was born yet she told me how much my mother had influenced her formative years. Here was a total stranger to me, with so much of my mother still a living part of her! I find that such a comforting thought…those people who give of themselves to other people continue to live on in those people long after their body has died. We need to share that with friends who are facing loss and let them know that as long as we live, their loved one will live on. And I feel we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about that person…it isn’t going to “stir up painful memories;” it will give comfort to know that their loved one is in someone else’s thoughts too.
It is so true that in a very real way, those who have died will live on in the lives of those they touched with their love and kindness.
When you didn’t know the deceased at all, sometimes your only goal is to let the recipient know that you are sharing their loss and holding them gently in your heart, lifting them up for healing, comfort, and peace. When we are in pain, it helps just knowing that someone else understands. If you’ve been through a similar loss, you can mention that so they will know you truly empathize.
I hope these thoughts help the next time you have to write a sympathy note. I’d welcome your thoughts on what has been meaningful to you in a note you’ve received. Just remember it’s always worth the effort, even though it doesn’t always feel like it.
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