This is hands down the hardest card to write to someone. When I go about the task of picking a sympathy card and figuring out what to write in it, I like to think about what I would want to hear at a time like this. Here are some tips and suggestions on what to write:
1. It's OK to Get Personal
In fact in most cases, you should. If your childhood friend lost her mother, share a fond memory about her. Maybe it's as simple as a time she made you both cookies when you were feeling down. Or how she always braided your hair and how much you loved that.
2. It's OK to Stay Formal
In contrast to tip #1, if you are writing a sympathy card for your boss or a colleague or distant friend, maybe it doesn't seem nature to get too person. You just want them to know they're in your thoughts.
3. I'm Here for You
It sounds cliche and you don't have to write this sentiment verbatim. But the idea behind it should resinate, especially if the recipient a close friend or family member.
4. Get Religious When Appropriate
This is a tricky balance. If you are religious and it's nature for you to send a card with scripture or reference to prayers, then you should. But also consider your audience. If the recipient is not religious or if you're sending this to a coworker you don't know well, they might perceive your views as being pushy or preachy. Similarly, if you flat out know that the recipient doesn't share your beliefs, don't hurt them by pushing your views on them at a difficult time. They're already going through a lot and may push you (and the idea of your beliefs) further away if they feel ganged up on by overly religious cards.
5. Some Phrases to Avoid
Oh man. I could write an entire article just on this topic. There are of course different schools of thought on this. And every person and relationship is different, so it is possible that these sentiments might be perfectly acceptable in the right instance. But most of the time, I recommend avoiding the following:
- "Everything happens for a reason" or "This is God's plan." Even if they believe that to be true, they likely don't want to hear it in this context. It can come off sounding like their feelings aren't valid because it was all part of a bigger plan. Universal plan or not, being sad someone has died is ok and trying to justify that away can make people feel worse.
- "I know how you feel." Even if you think you have, you don't. You and your friend may have both lost your husbands in similar ways, but her grief and processing could be very different from yours. Unless you have had lengthy conversations with them already about their feelings, you probably don't know how they feel.
- "Tell me how I can I help." This well-meaning phrase actually puts the burden back onto the recipient, making more work for them during a difficult time. Instead offer specific things to help with (meals, babysit the kids, help with arrangements, etc). This takes the thinking/coordinating part off of the recipient and leaving them with just having to say "yes, that'd be great, thank you."
- "At least you still have..." (insert name of other child, spouse, sibling, parent, etc who did not die) Yikes. It's well meaning because the person is trying to add a note of positivity. But they're unwillingly saying that your feelings of loss don't matter because you should be grateful for what you have. Again, it's ok for people to feel sad when experiencing grief.
This is less of a tip on how to write a sympathy card, but more of a reminder of what to do next.
Some grieving individuals are going to order 100 thank you cards and it will be therapeutic for them to start writing to everyone who sent a card, flowers, food, donated to a charity, etc.
Others cannot even fathom the chore of writing thank you cards in the midst of their loss.
Remember that what you would do may not be what the person grieving will do. Be ok with that. Don't expect a response or feel slighted if they don't get back to you. They are dealing with a mountain of emotion and planning. It's completely overwhelming and they shouldn't feel guilted or pressured into sending thank you's back until they're ready (and some may never be ready).