The Saddest Note of All: writing letters of condolence

This week’s subject comes from a reader. She wrote that someone she knows, but has not seen in a long time, recently passed away and she wanted to write a letter to his wife. However, she is struggling to find the right words and tone in English. Could I help?

First, may I say that letters of condolence are always difficult to write – whether it’s in your own language or another – not because of the grammar or vocabulary, but because you are dealing with emotions.  People often avoid writing them because they either don’t know what to say or are afraid of upsetting the person receiving it. Trust me when I say that getting cards and letters from people, even if you don’t know them that well, are a real gift when grieving. It lets them know they aren’t alone.

Whenever you send a letter of condolence, please do not send it by email and don’t type it on the computer. This is the time for a handwritten note using either a sympathy card or good writing paper.

So, how do you start? 

Most of the time, I like a neutral, professional tone in written communication. However, this is the one time I would use a more formal, personal tone. Use Dear Susan or Dear Mrs Smith as your greeting. If you know the person well, it is perfectly acceptable in these circumstances to begin with My dearest Susan – even if Susan is a colleague. Stay away from any of the informal or neutral greetings. For example, Hi! would not be appropriate at this time.

The first paragraph should acknowledge the death and then, well, speak from your heart. You could start with something like:

    • My dearest Susan, I am so sorry to hear about Stan’s passing. You must be heartbroken.
    • Dear Mrs Smith, We were greatly saddened to hear about Stan’s sudden death.
    • Dear Susan, We are all so very sad to hear of your father’s passing.

Please don’t ask for any details of the death and please never say anything about it being a “release” or “a blessing in disguise,” even if the person suffered for a long time.

Then say something nice about the deceased: a memory you have of them, a trait that made them unique, or what they did that was important. For example:

    •  He was such a wonderful man and I will miss him. He was always so supportive of me. If he hadn’t pushed me, I would have never finished university. I will always be thankful for that.
    • Stan was such a beloved member of the community association – always taking the lead and getting everyone on board. His will be big shoes to fill.
    • Even though we never got a chance to meet your father, we have heard you speak of him often. He sounded like a wonderful man.

Then let them know you are there for them if they need anything:

    •  If you need anything, please let me know. You know I am always there for you.
    • If there is anything you need, I do hope you will call. 
    • Please let me know if I or the company can do anything to help you through this difficult time.

 The closing is simple. You should end the letter:

    • With deepest sympathy, Mary

As I said, this type of note should be handwritten. But this is the 21st century. What if you hear about a death on social media? (It happens to me all the time on Facebook.) Often, the person who passed isn’t someone I know. If the announcement comes on social media, and you don’t know the deceased, it is OK to post a message online. Stick with something simple like I am so sorry. I know you must be heartbroken. Our thoughts and prayers are with you and your family during this difficult time. Believe it or not, it does make a difference.

I sincerely hope that none of you has to write such a letter any time soon, but I also hope this will help if you do.

Do you have a communication challenge? Leave a comment, message me, or send an email to I’d love to hear from you.

My name is Laura Marshallsay, and I help professionals improve their English so they can present themselves to the world with confidence.

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