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Losing a close friend or family member is always difficult. Besides dealing with the actual loss, many families enter into a very confusing and emotionally draining time of funeral arrangements, calling hours, reception of friends and family, and other events that can overwhelm a grieving family.

Following such numbing ceremonies and rituals, a family may wish to withdraw from public view in order to deal with the loss privately. As a concerned friend, co-worker, or family member, you may be asked to prepare a few words of sympathy for delivery as a eulogy or as a letter of sympathy for the family.

Such letters need to be written with empathy and compassion for the mourners but can be difficult to write for many reasons. If you are asked to write a letter of sympathy, you may want to consider the following advice on how to handle the situation tactfully and empathetically.

No one will be disappointed if your letter writing skills do not match your good intentions. A letter of sympathy should have a tone that approaches formal but still maintains some personal touches. If you are writing on behalf of the departed one's co-workers, use "We" to indicate the communal feelings of the entire office but do not be afraid to include some personal observances as well, even if they are humorous in nature. "We all share your pain and grief at the loss of your dear husband and father Richard. We will indeed miss his cheerful smile every morning and his obvious devotion to his family. I'll personally miss his special blend of three-alarm coffee and his taste in ties. Be assured that we will all be here for you and your family should you need anything..."

Sympathy letters may sound formulaic in places, much like the generic greeting cards you might read, but in a time of true grief and loss these words do have some meaning. Humorous or poignant anecdotes may help ease the tension following a loss, but keep both to a minimal.

Instead of a humorous anecdote about "three-alarm coffee," a sympathy letter might contain a more poignant story. "We would like you and your family to know that we also share your sense of loss following the passing of your wife Linda. I can remember the day when Linda brought the most beautiful flowers from her garden to my office when my daughter was ill. That's the kind of caring person Linda was, as you well know. Feel free to let us know if you need anything. We will always keep the memory of Linda in our hearts." Adding a personal anecdote that emphasizes a positive characteristic of the deceased person can go a long way towards expressing true empathy for the family's loss.

If the deceased died under unexpected or even controversial circumstances, you should still maintain a formal tone of sincere sympathy towards the family. A carefully chosen remark may breach a difficult issue, but you must be tactful. If a person died of a self-inflicted wound, the family may be in extreme turmoil, so you need to be delicate in your wording. "I was so sorry to learn of the death of your son. Although he may have had his share of troubled waters on this Earth, I am sure that he has found peace with his Creator. May your family find the strength to find the answers you seek." Nothing more needs to be said. Acknowledging a difficult situation in your letter while still expressing grief and sympathy may be the most tactful way to handle such an extreme situation. The same is true for victims of crime or those who may have died under unknown circumstances.

A murder victim's family knows that their loved one was murdered, so you should not artifically avoid the topic in your letter. "All of us at the factory where Ronald worked share your sense of grief at your recent loss. Ronald was a decent, hardworking man and a terrific father to his children. We may never understand the events that took such a man's life from him so abruptly, but we can find comfort in knowing that he was a part of our lives for many years..." This is not the time to speculate on the circumstances that ended with a tragic loss of life, but rather a time to reassure the family that justice will prevail.

Finally, a letter of sympathy should remain open-ended, offering assistance and comfort for the family, along with a sense of renewed hope for the family's recovery. "Do not hesitate to call my office if you need anything. We'll do anything in our power to make sure your family is provided with all the information you may need in the future. Our thoughts and prayers are with you, as you face this difficult transitional time in your life." Grieving family members are sometimes concerned that their own personal loss will also become the loss of connections to former friends and associates of the deceased. In a sympathy letter, express the idea of a continuing bond, if it is appropriate to do so.

A good sympathy letter is formal in tone but personal in nature. Between the standard expressions of loss and sympathy should be enough of your own thoughts to offer the family some real emotional comfort. Keep it brief, and follow it up with more personal contact when the time is appropriate.