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What to Write in a Sympathy Card
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What to Write in a Sympathy Card

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It can be such a frustrating experience—to want to put words to paper that are comforting and insightful in the face of death, ones that will resonate, that won’t feel formal or forced. But it can be tough to know exactly what to write in a sympathy card. The good news is that you’re sending a card! That’s what matters most. The act of acknowledgement is a powerful one. After being on the receiving end of hundreds of sympathy cards, I thought about which ones have really stuck with me. You have the words inside you. Here are some suggestions on ways to get them out:

  1. Speak his or her name: Most cards I got expressed that the sender was thinking of me and my daughters. The ones that mentioned Ben—said they were thinking about me, the girls, and him, in the present tense—meant so much. Though the loss is all too real, we want our person to live on. They live on for us. Seeing them forgotten or their name unspoken is a fading that causes us to fade as well.

Keep putting one foot in front of the other. We’re all behind you, including Ben.

  1. Share a story: Stories about Ben are like little jewels, things to treasure. One friend of his whom I had never met mailed a letter from Europe recounting their days together as lifeguards (a story I had never heard). Another told me of a time before he was a parent when Ben handed our infant daughter to him to hold, and that their exchange was a moment he’s reflected on often since.

And Ben was looking at me with that really lovely, open Ben smile and he said, There you go, you got it … see? You’re a natural.

  1. Say how you’ll help: If you’re someone who is comfortable being pushy (which I recommend!), start in the card. Be explicit about what you’d like to do, and when. Say you’ll keep checking in. Make your friend feel like you’ve taken on the job of showing up.

I'll be calling periodically to check in on you. Please don't answer if you're not up for talking! There is no need to call me back. Just know that I will keep trying to show up and be there to support you.

  1. Be human: It’s OK to acknowledge that “I don’t always know what to say or how to help.” Being up front with that shows that you’re trying to think of what to say or what to do.

I struggle to find the right words to express the pain I feel for you. I struggle to know what the best way to help is. But I'm going to work on figuring that out.

  1. If you don’t have the words, go ahead and steal: There are some powerful quotes out there. It’s OK to say you’ve found someone else’s words that express what you’re trying to.

What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply becomes a part of us. - Helen Keller

  1. Short is OK: Long stories and reflections are wonderful. So is just saying it short, sweet, and bold.

I’m thinking about you and sending you love every day. I’m here for you.

  1. There is no such thing as too late: If you didn’t send a card immediately and worry the window has “closed,” good news. It never closes. Sending a card a month, or months, or even a year after the death is just as valuable as all those early ones—or maybe even more, as the flow of remembrances trickle to a stop. One of my cousins sent a sympathy card several months after Ben died. What she wrote was so spot on.

I’ve got confidence God will allow the timing of this note of love (although late) to be just when you need it.

  1. You don’t have to say it all at once: The cards dry up. Keep them coming. Send more than one! Send emails. Check in. If you aren’t getting a response, don’t stop the effort.

You've got this. And in the moments when you don't, I've got you.