sixtyandme logo
We are community supported and may earn a commission when you buy through links on our site. Learn more

How to Write Condolence Notes: 8 Tips That Might Come in Handy

By Alexandra Kathryn Mosca February 17, 2024 Lifestyle

I recently poured out my heart to a colleague about my guilt at two condolence notes left unwritten. One note was intended for a colleague whose sister had died, though I’d heard about the death long after the funeral had taken place.

The sisters had shared a close bond that I hoped to capture in writing. Choosing a plain condolence card onto which I would add my own personal sentiments, I sat down to write.

Days became weeks, and the card remained blank as I battled with indecision about what to say. In a sad turn of events, the surviving sister died suddenly, leaving me with great guilt for not having reached out in writing to let her know that I cared.

That same year, another colleague lost his wife to cancer. This time I attended the funeral service but felt a personal expression of sympathy was in order. For several hours, I painstakingly wrote and rewrote that note only to set it aside in frustration.

After all, what comforting words could there possibly be to express my sentiments about this beautiful woman taken too soon from this life? I tried again on the first anniversary of her death, and still the words would not come.

I had missed two opportunities to express my sorrow. Later, I saw my colleague and realized that he would never know how much he had been in my thoughts.

It would seem that the combination of my careers – funeral director and writer – would endow me with an effortless ability to write such notes. After all, I reasoned, funeral directors are around death all the time and should know just how to console others.

Well, despite my stock and trade, I struggle. And, I am not alone.

So, what is it about condolence notes that makes them so difficult to write? Do we fear offending in some way? Are we afraid of saying too much, or too little? Do we worry that they are not personal enough, or too personal? Do we fear falling short?

A Little History

The word “condolence” has been in the vernacular since the 1600s when it was defined as “sympathetic grief” and “sorrowing with another.” But such letters go back much further. There is archaeological evidence that the ancient Greeks wrote such letters, mostly after the death of a child.

The Victorians elevated condolence letters to an art form, writing in an elegant cursive script on high-quality mourning stationery rimmed in black. According to the book Death in the Victorian Family, “Victorian condolence letter writers offered affection and sympathy in abundance.”

In more recent times, writer Edith Wharton wrote a six-page letter to President Theodore Roosevelt upon hearing of the death of his son Quentin during WWI.

She included the important components of a condolence note, expressions of sympathy and comfort, along with a personal recollection: “We had a delightful long talk after lunch, which gave me such a sense of his vitality, his understanding, his happy face.”

While Wharton’s letter to Pres. Roosevelt flowed fluently, that is often not the case for the average letter writer, especially in this day and age of short texts and tweets. Still, there are some guidelines we can all follow.

8 Tips to Writing Condolence Notes

  • Social media expressions of sympathy aren’t enough. Nothing takes the place of a handwritten note.
  • Steer clear of clichés and platitudes. Telling a mourner that their loved one is in a better place may be met with “Where, the ground?” by the less spiritual.
  • Well-intentioned as it may be, resist the urge to reassure the bereaved that time will lessen their grief, and they will find closure. There often isn’t any closure.
  • It’s okay to admit when words fail. In fact, there are some deaths so tragic that there are no adequate words of consolation. A simple, “There are no words for this,” is honest and direct.
  • Share a personal recollection, perhaps something the mourners did not know about the deceased. These reminiscences serve to remind family and friends that their loved one touched many lives.
  • Quote from the great writers and poets like Shakespeare, Kahlil Gibran, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Emily Dickinson, who wrote, “Unable are the loved to die. For love is immortality.”
  • Offer something tangible. Reassure the mourners you are “there for them” – whether to lend an ear, run an errand, or spend some time together.
  • Resist the impulse to try to compose the perfect note of sympathy. As philosopher Voltaire said, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.”

So, there you have it. It isn’t always easy to write condolence notes, but doing so will bring you peace, and may be a ray of sunshine for those who read them.

Let’s Have a Conversation:

What is it about condolence notes that makes them so difficult to write? Do you fear you might offend? Or do you worry they’re not personal enough? Please use the comment box below to share your experience and thoughts.

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Lorie A

Perfect timing for this article. My dear friend’s mom passed suddenly last week and they were very close. I feel a sense of guilt that I was unable to attend her funeral yesterday as I had to take my father to hospital emergency. I will write her today as I sit with my dad is his hospital room. Thank you for the push to plow through.


Years ago, 40 to be exact when I lost my father, I received a Hallmark type of card with a simple “With Understanding Sympathy” and their signature. Those 3 words were so comforting to me, that is all I need to hear. Ever since, whenever I send a sympathy card out, I always sign it “With Understanding Sympathy”.

sondra thorson

Thanks. I really like this and will be following your example.


My most difficult writing task was answering condolence cards for a cousin who just could deal with it. But it was gratifying at the same time.

Theresa D.

Immediately following the death, there are so many condolences that come in. I actually have adopted a practice of sending condolence cards a month, two months and even later. As the initial shock settles down, and you begin to deal with the loss and grief day in and day out, sometimes the acknowledgment of grief during these later times can be helpful.

Jacquelyn D Harris

I feel that I’m not saying enough to “cover” their level of grief. I fear that I will say that I’m there for them and that I won’t be.


Well, don’t say it.

Carol Anne Cole

Yes, I have the same fear. You can’t always be there, if you are older and don’t have the strength or energy. I know someone I can’t support because they tend to drink and call in the middle of the night, and I just can’t do that. So it is best to just express sympathy. Anyways, there are often cards that say some really nice things, thank goodness.

The Author

Alexandra Kathryn Mosca has worked as a funeral director in New York for more than 35 years. She is the author of three books: Grave Undertakings, Green-Wood Cemetery and Gardens of Stone and has contributed articles to Newsday, New York Daily News, The Saturday Evening Post and funeral industry publications. Visit her website here

You Might Also Like