Sympathy Message Do's and Don'ts

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Though pre-printed sympathy notes are acceptable, writing a personal sympathy message is something to consider.A personal note is a warm and intimate way to let the recipient know you care.The Emily Post® Institute advises you to follow one rule: Say what you truly feel.


  • Tell the recipient that you send your sympathy
  • Let the family know how much you will miss the deceased
  • Let them know how dearthe deceased was or how they inspired you
  • Recall a fond memory, share a lighthearted story (but keep it short)
  • Express your regrets in the note or letter if you can't attend the services
  • Ask if there is something specific you can do to help - run errands, make food, etc.- if you are able to do so.


  • Dwell on the details of an illness or death or ask for details about it
  • Imply that death was for the best
  • Tell the family what to do - "you have to be strong," "stay busy," etc.
  • Make religious references unless you know those sentiments are felt by the recipient of your note.

Whom to Address

Here are some guidelines when sending a sympathy note or letter of condolence:

  • If you're sending a sympathy note to a friend who has lost a relative, send it directly to your friend.
  • Address the note to the closest relative of the deceased. If you didn't know the family, address the sympathy note to the spouse, the oldest adult child, or parents
  • If the deceased is the parent of a friend, your sympathy note should be sent to the friend, rather than the surviving parent.
  • If you're sending a letter of condolence to children who've lost a parent, address their names on separate lines: Miss Ann Wolfe (the daughter), Mr. John Wolfe (the son) underneath. Your note's salutation should say "Dear Ann and John"
  • If a friend's ex-spouse dies, and the couple maintained a close relationship, you can write a sympathy note to your friend and to any children of the couple

Timing for Sending Condolences Messages

A sympathy note or letter of condolenceis ideally sent soon (within a week, if possible) after learning of the death. But even if you send the note weeks later, the recipient will appreciate your words of condolence. It is also a wonderful idea to touch base or write again weeks - or even months - later to let the family member know you are still thinking of them.

Trying to put your thoughts into words is difficult, and it's understandable if you have put off writing the note. Keep in mind, your note doesn't have to be very long. Just let the family know you've been thinking and praying (if appropriate) for them.

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