Knowing the right words of sympathy to say is not something that comes easily to most people. When a friend or acquaintance has lost a loved one, it is often difficult to find just the right words to say to express sympathy and offer support without sounding fake or even potentially hurting the bereaved feelings. It may even be tempting to avoid the topic all together, because of the potential awkwardness regarding the right words of sympathy. However, you do not need to avoid the subject and possibly hurt a friendship or relationship by refusing to offer condolences or support. You simply need to know the right kind of words of sympathy to say—or to avoid.

Let’s cover the don’ts of sympathetic letters or expressions first.

Don’t use clichés. When writing or expressing words of sympathy, it is usually very tempting to rely on common phrases which are brought up again and again when someone dies, such as “They are in a better place,” “I know how you feel,” “They are at peace now,” “It’s a part of God’s plan.” Etc. Although these phrases are often expressed with the best of intentions, they are now considered clichés and will likely come across as shallow, generic and without heart.

Don’t bring up religion unless you know the person very well. For those that are religious, it is often tempting to bring religion into sympathetic words in order to comfort the person who has lost a loved one. However, religion should not be brought up in a sympathy letter unless you absolutely know that the person shares your personal religious beliefs and would not mind them being applied to the situation.

Don’t bring up negative memories or conflicts. Regardless of your history with the deceased, now is not the time to remind the grieving of the big fight you had with the deceased person or any other negative memory or conflict. This will not only hurt the person who you are supposed to be expressing sympathy toward, but could even cause a major rift in your relationship.

Now, let’s look at some of the do’s of expressing words of sympathy.

Do express sorrow at their loss. Although you may not have known the deceased very well, you should always express your sorrow at the loss experienced by another person. Doing so will let them know that you are thinking about their feelings during this emotional time.

Do share memories of the deceased, if possible. Positive memories of the deceased are a way to talk about the person who has died without relying on generic stock phrases which often seem empty. These memories not only let the bereaved know that you are not just writing a form letter,  but also remind them of happier times with the deceased.

Do be personal. Few things can sting more than a generic form letter written under the guise of a sympathy card. While you don’t have to go into great detail about memories or you feelings for the deceased, adding personal touches (such as the deceased’s name, a memory, a thing you loved about them) can help your friend or acquaintance know that you are not just spitting out a sympathy card—and that you really do care about their grief and sorrow.

Whether you are writing a letter or giving your sympathy in person, remembering these dos and don’ts will keep your words of sympathy succinct, personal and appropriate.


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