How to Write a Condolence Note

Sarah, Molly, Katie and I agree a lot, as you’ll see. But just as we know that our loss isn’t unique, and that so many others suffer through profound grief too, we know that our experience isn’t the be-all and end-all way to grieve either. What’s comforting to us might not be comforting to all. We do think, though, that there’s a universality to, what Molly calls, the language of loss. And in that universality, we’ve found some common themes: it’s scary to talk about loss, it’s challenging to sit with loss and loss sucks.

We’ve unwoven these threads to try and come up with some ideas about how to tackle writing a condolence note, and included what we’ve found most comforting, plus some pitfalls to try and avoid when reaching out. You’ll find very quickly, though, that condolence notes don’t need to be as terrifying as they might seem. The bottom line is that you have everything inside of you already to write one: You have a heart, and you care. That’s why you’re here.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017 2:30 PM

Molly:   Condolence notes!

Stephie:   HERE WE GO!

Katie:   Let's do this!

Sarah:   #1, they are hard to write.

Katie:   I think in the spirit of honesty, YES! And they don't get that much easier because you care about the person. On top of that, each loss is unique. But there are definitely things you learn that can make you feel a little less lost.

Stephie:   Right. And they don't even get easier once you've been through loss yourself; they're just universally/for-all-time hard.

Molly:   Yes, it's STILL hard to write one even being on the other end of loss.

Sarah:   I think the important thing to remember is that there really isn't a wrong thing to say. The worst thing would be to not say anything.

Katie:   Yes, agreed. Although, maybe there is one thing, that’s not so much wrong as not the best option: “on the bright side.”

Molly:   Totally. Trying to undermine the loss and put a nice positive twist to it just doesn’t work.

Sarah:   Yeah, because this isn't a time to look for a silver lining.

Stephie:    "At least" never made anyone feel better.

Katie:   You can’t fix someone’s grief.

Molly:   I think we as humans are so uncomfortable just sitting in the sadness, especially when we are trying to comfort others, but that is sometimes the best way to go about writing a condolence note.

Sarah:   Yes, sitting in the sadness is awkward, but it shows empathy.

Stephie:   Absolutely, and avoiding the impulse to try and make the person feel better by being positive, at least in that initial contact — when you’re in the thick of grief, thinking positive isn’t really an accessible option.

Katie:    The card is about letting them know you are there for them. And you may feel uncomfortable sharing memories of the loved one, and afraid it will make them feel more sad, but most likely all they are doing is thinking about their loved one already. And hearing how their loved one touched you can be a huge comfort.

Sarah:   Yes, we want to hear those memories.

Molly:   Yes, agreed to that! The more memories the better! We get to know our loved ones even more after they are gone through the stories of their friends.

Stephie:   YES. And I like what you said, Sarah, about the worst thing is not saying anything at all; I think that sort of takes the pressure off, just knowing that nothing anyone can say is the absolute most perfect thing to say, and being perfect doesn't even matter in this scenario.

Sarah:    Exactly. You are never going to make someone more sad, and you should never feel that it "isn't your place" to say something. Even if you didn’t know the person who died.

Katie:   Agreed.

Molly:   But honestly, even if it DOES make the person more sad, that is not a bad feeling anymore. We welcome sadness.

Stephie:   Oh yes. Sarah/Molly, you both got letters from people you hadn't heard from in awhile or didn't know very well before, right?

Sarah:   Yes, and in many ways those are some of the letters that I was the most touched by. Because I know how awkward that must have been to send — it meant so much.

Katie:    I think along those lines: Even just letters that said, “I'm sorry for your loss” mean something. It doesn't have to be long.

Stephie:    YES. I think a lot of times, folks put added pressure on themselves to send a handwritten note, or to go out and buy a card — but really, an email is great. A text is great. A Facebook message is great. Each conveys the same level of care.

Molly:    Yes! They are honestly like little pricks of joy.

Sarah:    Yes, anything! Just something that says, “Hey this sucks” is enough.

Molly:    Ya, and it makes you think, “Wow, how many other people were affected by this that I don't even know about?”

Sarah:    Exactly.

Katie:    A letter, even with those few words, makes you feel less alone. And like Molly said, others are feeling the pain and sorrow of that loss, too.

Molly:     Also receiving those letters from essentially strangers has made me want to reach out to others as well — I am so grateful for their courage.

Sarah:    Yes, it helps to spread the love and pay it forward.

Molly:    Every time you receive anything from anyone about your loved one — it temporarily gives you such deep joy and connectedness.

Katie:    And there's no time limit on when you send these. If you didn't have courage when you first heard, you're not too late.

Sarah:    Oh yeah, it’s never too late! Sometimes it takes awhile for people to process what happened, and that’s totally okay. It could be six months, a year later, whenever.

Stephie:    YES. It's not like sending a wedding gift within a year or something — your friend is sitting with that grief day in / day out, and hearing acknowledgement from someone that says, "Yes, I know you're still in pain" can be very validating.

Molly:    Also important to note: If you don't ever get a response back, it’s mostly because there were too many people to respond to, and it gets overwhelming. Nothing ever goes unnoticed or unappreciated. Sometimes I feel guilty about that, but I have learned to let it go. People are genuinely sending love because they care, and not because they’re expecting a response back.

Sarah:    I know, I have guilt about that, too. But, everything I received was so appreciated and cherished.

Molly:    Speaking of sending cards throughout the months that follow, my friend Joanie sent me a few cards just to say “hey” and random memories that related to Julia, but honestly some that didn’t. She just sent them because she wanted me to know she was thinking of me and loves me. I think that is so important, and again helps people not feel so alone in their grief — especially as the adrenaline wears off and real life sets in. It reminds you that people haven't forgotten either. I still get texts and emails, and it is so life-giving. It also kind of blows my mind a bit.

Sarah:    Oh yes, it's always nice to hear someone is thinking of you! Because grief isn't something that gets better necessarily. It's always with you, and ebbs and flows in waves.

Katie:    Yes, and you've shared some of these cards from Joanie with us, Molly, and we were able to remember Jules through them. So that one card, really brought joy to not just you but to all of us.

Molly:    They have ripple effects!

Katie:    Yes! Also because of these cards, I’ve been more conscious about checking in with people I loved, realizing how much those little reminders that we're not alone can make a difference.

Stephie:    Definitely. It's a really profoundly human thing to feel that connection, and then pass on that connection.

Katie:     I think along those lines, these letters also really taught us about courage, and just putting yourself out there. We’ve since made ourselves vulnerable, sharing our experience with grief, and we hope it may help, but it's always scary that it could be taken the wrong way.

Molly:    Yes totally — it is scary! But it means the world. Don't we all want to make people feel a little better about life? This is a very tangible way to do that.

Katie:    100%. And I think we can all say with certainty that we didn't take a single card the wrong way.  It's just that little, negative voice in your head that makes you question yourself, and you have to ignore it.

Sarah:    Yeah, I have that voice even now! I have it when I’m trying to comfort someone else. But I have to ignore it, and allow myself to feel the sadness, and to convey that.

Stephie:     Oh yes, I still feel like an amateur! I wrote an email to my friend's little sister after her friend passed away a couple weeks ago, and I stared at a blank email on my computer for probably thirty minutes before I could figure out what to say. It doesn't get easier. (Which is sort of the unexpectedly good news. I think I'd be terrified if I thought sending condolences did get easier.)

Molly:     I love what you said about staring at a blank page, Stephie, even now — knowing that helps someone else who is also on the other side of grief not feel like they always have to have the words to say just because they’ve been through loss! I think in those moments you are staring at a blank screen is a true act of empathy.

Stephie:    Absolutely. I keep coming back to what you said earlier, Molls, about sitting in the sadness. Grief is so inherently lonely, and just having someone “sit” (figuratively) in the muck with you, and try their best to feel what you're feeling, makes you feel that much less isolated and alone.

Katie:    And a letter/text/email can really capture that when you can't physically be with the person.

Molly:    It honestly does. I think some people question why they are so sad even if they didn't know the person that died at all or very well — at least I have, and I feel embarrassed by it, like I don't deserve to be this sad. But I think there it's because we are tapping into the universal language of loss. We are sad for our friends who have to go through this shi*, we are sad for their families, we are sad for the person that died who's life is cut short — whether they were 29 or 94. It’s okay to feel any way that you feel and to communicate it, to get very personal with it, and to not stifle your grief. You have every right to be sad. P.S. Emily McDowell has incredibly poignant and honest empathy cards.

Katie:    Yes! Empathy!

Stephie:    EMPATHY. When we know someone going through loss, we often feel so utterly helpless. I think some of the most common things we've all heard are, "I wish there was something I could do," and "I know there's nothing really I can do" — which all goes back to the bottom line of, just giving voice to that care (via letter, etc.) is a huge comfort. And it's natural to feel so helpless because there's no easy fix (which goes back to that real common impulse to go positive or go home).

Sarah:    Agreed!! You all are typing exactly what I'm thinking haha

Stephie:    It's like we finish each other's… Sandwiches.

Katie:    Haha

Sarah:    Same brain :)

Katie:    Being sad and sharing in the sorrow is beautiful and healing.

Stephie:    Are there any letters y'all have received that come to mind? Molls, I know those Joanie letters were huge.

Katie:    I hadn't even started my new job when Julia passed away, and my new co-worker wrote me an email that said, “I know you don't know me well yet, but if you need anything at all, please don't hesitate to reach out." It was so simple but sincere, and brave.

Sarah:    That is so brave.

Molly:    Wow, that was really thoughtful!

Sarah:    And sweet.

Katie:    All those things. And since then I've had other people in work situations go through a loss. Before I wouldn't have said anything, but now I always remember that note. That was my first time learning that there's no rules around grief and loss. It's beyond social norms. Even if you don't have a close relationship, reach out. Acknowledging a loss is never the wrong thing to do.

Molly:    Ya, it makes work more of a supportive place! You aren't just robots with no families… And you spend so much time with those people, it’s nice to bring that empathy into the workplace.

Stephie:    Yes yes yes, I love that.

Sarah:    Very true, always acknowledge if you can. The letter I received from [my husband] Ben's friend was really helpful. He sent it about a month after she died saying he had never met Julia, but since we are so shaped by our families he sees Julia's kindness through me. That was very touching.

Stephie:    Ah! I love that so much. I'm thinking of two letters. One was a card that came in the mail from a college friend who I've only seen a couple times since she moved out of state. And in it she said, "I know we're not as closely in touch as we used to be, but I want you to know how much I care about you." And some other really touching stuff that made me cry (good cry, always good cry). She had met Jules only once, but shared her memory of meeting Jules, and how much she liked her and could understand why she was my best friend.

The other was an email I got the day after Julia died from my buddy who’s basically my brother, Chris Littler, probably right after [my husband] Chris told him what had happened. And it just said the f-word a bunch of times. Plus some other stuff, but mostly the f-word. And I just remember thinking, “Thank God for you, Littler. You are verbatim saying what I am thinking.”

Sarah:    Hahaha oh yes the f-word sometimes is all there is to say!

Katie:    Yes. SUCK and it's rhyming friend F...

Stephie:    Hahahaha

Molly:    Hahahaha agreed.


A time to cry and a time to laugh. A time to grieve and a time to dance.  Ecclesiastes 3:4