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Tips for writing a meaningful condolence letter

 

There’s no question that in this age of technology, writing letters is a lost art. That’s a shame when it comes to death and dying, because a personal letter is a great comfort to the bereaved. Take for example, this famous condolence letter from President Abraham Lincoln to Lydia Bixby, who had lost five sons in the Civil War:

 

Executive Mansion,

Washington, 21st November, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming.

But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.

I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

 

With the advent of email and other technological advances, letters are far less common than they used to be. But when someone dies, the best way to convey condolences is through a personal letter.  While there are times a condolence email is appropriate — when the bereaved is a casual acquaintance, or if you’re traveling on business — in most cases, to truly convey your feelings to a friend or family member who has suffered a loss, a letter – or note tucked into a card – is much preferred.  In fact, Emily Post suggests that an email can precede a phone call or written condolence, but should be followed up with a hand-written note.

A hand-written condolence letter is a personal way of acknowledging someone’s grief and offering comfort in a heart-felt way. Old-fashioned? Maybe. But taking a few extra minutes to compose a personal sympathy note will pay tribute to the deceased and provide long-remembered treasured words of comfort to the bereaved.

Here are some guidelines for writing a condolence letter, but the most important thing to remember is to write from the heart: Say what you truly feel.

  1. Send the letter promptly. Write and mail the letter within about two weeks following the loss.
  2. Use your own voice. There’s no need for fancy prose to express simple, genuine sympathy.
  3. Don’t dwell on the deceased’s illness or circumstances of death. Don’t suggest that the death is a blessing or that it was “for the best.”
  4. If you have to send an email, you can find some example of email condolences here.
  5. The components of a condolence letter:
    • Address – if you are unsure to whom you should send the letter, Emily Post has some suggestions.
    • Acknowledge the loss of the person by name.
    • Share a favorite memory or special qualities of the deceased.
    • Offer specific help, if needed, such as babysitting, cooking, or a ride to church.
    • Finish with a thoughtful message, such as “You are in my thoughts.”

It can be hard for some people to express themselves in writing. Fortunately, you don’t have to write like Abraham Lincoln. And if you’re stuck for words, technology can come in handy: You can find some examples of condolence messages on the Internet – such as these from Hallmark. Use them for inspiration and the right words will come to you!

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