[I published this article in another venue and it seems to be so helpful to people that I’m reprinting it on my blog so it can be searched by a wider audience. It will also automatically post to my Facebook.]
When someone dies, we naturally want to comfort those left behind, but we often feel helpless to make them feel better. What can we possibly say to relieve the pain of loss they are feeling? Actually, even a few words, carefully chosen, can provide surprisingly strong comfort.
When we lose someone we love, we want to know that they are remembered and we want to believe that their spirit continues on some level. It is important for us to see that the person so dear to us touched the lives of other people. It is also helpful to know that others are thinking of us in our time of grief and that we are not alone.
A well-written sympathy card will contain all the above elements. Start off by saying how sad you were to hear of the death. Let the recipient know that you will always remember the person who died. If you are inclined, you can briefly relate a special memory of the person who died. Hearing new stories about someone who died provides new experiences of that person, which helps us transcend the death. Let the recipient know that the person who died touched you in a personal way and made a difference in your life. If you did not know the person who died, then let the recipient know that s/he is special to you and that was what prompted you to write.
If you believe in the ongoing life of the spirit, make reference to what you imagine the spirit of the deceased is doing or thinking in the “spirit world.” Be sensitive to the religious and spiritual beliefs of the person receiving your card. If you share their religion, then you will be able to say something of a spiritual nature that is in exact harmony with your religious beliefs. If you don’t believe in an ongoing life of the spirit or you are irreligious, make reference to the ongoing impact the deceased will have in the world based on what s/he did in life. Remember that those left behind will be comforted to know that others recognize the difference in the world that was made by the person who has died, that s/he accomplished something worth remembering.
Finish your message by letting the recipient know that you will continue to hold them in your thoughts (and prayers if appropriate) and that they and the one they have lost to death are not forgotten. If you feel certain that you can follow through, then offer to help in any way you can and put your phone number to show that you are serious.