How to Write a Sympathy Note

When someone you know loses a loved one to death, a common reaction is to send a sympathy card. But once it’s purchased, what do you write inside? Do you have the perfect words of comfort? Will you accidentally say the wrong thing? Writing a sympathy note isn’t easy, but it is important. You can’t make someone’s grief and pain go away, but you can help someone feel cared for and loved.

While it can be tempting to rely on Hallmark’s perfectly crafted messages or to scrawl “thinking of you” above your signature, taking a few moments to hand-write a heart-felt note is meaningful to those who are grieving. While each situation is different, there are some general recommendations that could be helpful.

1. If you knew the person who died, share your favorite memory in your sympathy card, and use the deceased person’s name. Hospice of the Red River Valley Bereavement Specialist Jennifer said, “It has been 16 years since my father died; I still crave hearing someone mention his name. And better yet, to hear someone mention his name along with a happy memory of him. Just for a brief moment, it is as though he has come alive again through the memory shared.”

2. If you didn’t know the deceased person well, share what you observed or what you remember about his or her qualities. For example, “I didn’t know your mother well, but I remember thinking how much you look like her.” Or, “I only met your mother once, but I remember Linda had a lovely smile. She seemed so full of joy.” Don’t feel like you must fabricate a memory; it’s OK to keep it short with a note like, “I am sorry to hear about the death of your uncle Mike. I hope you can find some comfort in many happy memories.”

3. If you knew the deceased, but not the surviving family to whom you’re sending your card, it might be helpful to mention your connection to their loved one. For example, “Your mother and I were neighbors.” Or “I worked with your dad for 10 years.”

4. If you know the family well, close your sympathy note with a specific offer of help. This might be a delivery of a meal, letting the person know you’re available for a chat over coffee, or the willingness to help with a chore. Rather than offer a vague offer to help, be specific, and then follow through. For example, “I would like to prepare a meal for your family. I’ll bring it over tomorrow night.”

What to Avoid
There are some things you should not say or write in a sympathy card. While you have good intentions, the following phrases are often not interpreted as well-meaning by those who are grieving. Avoid phrases like:

  •  “It’s God’s will.”
  • “She’s in a better place.”
  • “It’s for the best.”
  • “It’s a blessing.”
  • “I know exactly how you feel.”

It’s not necessary to write an elegant message in your sympathy card; it’s actually much more significant when you acknowledge a death at all, even if you are unsure what to say, than avoid those who are grieving.

Sample Sympathy Note
Dear Martha,

I was so sad to hear about the passing of your mom. I remember when I first met Cindy; she was visiting your house in the summer and we stopped over to say hi. Your mom wouldn’t let us leave without some of her chocolate chip cookies. They were delicious! She was such a giving and kind person and will be missed. I hope you can find some comfort in many happy memories.

I have a meal for you and your family and I’ll deliver it later this week. I’m here for you. Please take care of yourself!

Your friend,


About Hospice of the Red River Valley
In 1981, Hospice of the Red River Valley was founded on the belief that everyone deserves access to high-quality end-of-life care. We fulfill our nonprofit mission by providing medical, emotional, personal and spiritual care, as well as grief support to our patients, their families and caregivers during a tender time in life. Our staff helps those we serve experience more meaningful moments through exceptional hospice care, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, wherever a patient calls home. The organization serves more than 40,000 square miles in North Dakota and Minnesota, including in and around Bismarck, Detroit Lakes, Devils Lake, Fargo, Fergus Falls, Grand Forks, Lisbon, Thief River Falls, Valley City and many more communities. Hospice of the Red River Valley offers round-the-clock availability via phone, prompt response times and same-day admissions, including evenings, weekends and holidays. Contact us anytime at 800-237-4629 or


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