We’ve all been there. Someone’s friend or family member passes away, and we want to be supportive and show understanding. But we don’t know exactly what to say or what to do, and we’re left feeling awkward and a bit stuck.
It can be challenging to know just what to say to someone who has lost a loved one, but most people who have experienced a death appreciate hearing from friends and loved ones. We spoke with grief experts whose advice can help us find the right words to write heartfelt sympathy notes and condolence messages.
Writing a condolence message.
A condolence message can take many forms but is understood to be an expression of sympathy when someone dies. Letting a person who has just experienced a loss know that you are thinking of them in their time of need and that you care often means a great deal.
There is no social rule about who can send a condolence message. If you are close with the bereaved, are only an acquaintance, and even when you don’t know the relatives but knew the deceased, sending a condolence message is an appropriate way to convey your sympathy and is a thoughtful way to show you care.
When to reach out.
Depending on how close you are to the person experiencing the loss, condolence messages are usually sent as soon as you learn about the death of their loved one. However, it is also appropriate to send a condolence message within a few days of the memorial service or funeral.
The best time to reach out will depend on your relationship, according to both licensed psychologist Laura Louis, Ph.D., and grief and trauma therapist Ajita Robinson, Ph.D., LCPC.
“Are you a close friend who was notified directly? In that case, reaching out and showing up is appropriate in most instances because the relationship already makes room for this level of ‘presence’ or involvement,” says Robinson. Louis says you can and should reach out immediately when you first find out the loss has occurred. They may or may not respond right away, but they’ll know you’re there for them.
Louis also recommends reaching out a few weeks after the loss has occurred or a few weeks after the funeral. “As a psychologist, I find that the weeks and months after the funeral is oftentimes when people need the most support because at that point most family and friends have left town,” she tells mbg.
“Most importantly, when you reach out, try to understand that the bereaved person(s) is not obligated to respond,” Robinson adds. “They are overwhelmed and may not have words to describe what they are feeling or what they need.”
What kind of condolence messages are acceptable to send, and in what way? Is calling appropriate, is texting too informal, or do we send a traditional condolence card? The short answer is, there is no right or wrong way to send a condolence message if the message is heartfelt and supportive.
“Methods of reaching out depend on the level of closeness of the relationship,” Louis says.
The general “when and how” to reach out goes like this: If you are a family member or close friend, call or text immediately, and then visit the bereaved at home and either stay with them for as long as you can or be in touch on a daily basis.
If you are social friends or acquaintances who aren’t as close, send an email or a text as soon as you find out and reach out again after the “business” of the funeral has ended. If you are work colleagues or knew the deceased but not the relatives, you can send an email or traditional handwritten note or condolence card as soon as you learn of the passing.
According to Robinson, the method of sharing your condolence message is less important than the expectations we have around it and what we say and do when we communicate. “If someone is in the immediate aftermath of a loss, they may not be available (mentally or physically) to answer phone calls, and it certainly is not a time to ask questions that haven’t readily been answered such as ‘what happened,'” she says.
How to write a condolence message.
There are different kinds of condolence messages for different situations. For instance, what you write in a sympathy note to someone who has lost a friend will differ from the condolence message you write for someone who has lost a family member or partner. The message will also differ depending upon who the recipient is in relation to you.
Below, Robinson and Louis breakdown some examples of where to start your condolence messages and some actions you can take depending upon the situation.
Condolence messages for a friend.
- [Name], I am so sorry that your [parent, sister, cousin, nephew, etc.] died. I am thinking of you and your family.
- I’m so sorry to hear of your loss.
- I am always here for you, and I am sending you love and strength during this distressing time.
- I will check in on you, and it’s totally OK if you can’t respond.
- I am thinking about you and sending my heartfelt sympathies and condolences.
- Although I don’t know what you are feeling right now, I do understand what it’s like to lose a [friend/family member/etc.].
- Losing a loved one is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It feels like a cloud has cast a shadow over you. Please know it won’t always be that way. The clouds will clear, and the sun will shine again. When you need some sunlight, I will never be far away. You have my deepest condolences.
- Saying goodbye to someone as important as [insert name] is devastating. Although I cannot replace [him/her/them/etc.], I am here to support you with hugs, a shoulder to cry on, and the reminder that you are not alone.
- My heartfelt condolences for the loss of your [friend/family member/etc.]. May you find comfort in remembering the special moments that brightened your days throughout the years.
- I hope you allow all the memories you shared to shine in remembrance for years to come.
- As your friend, I wish that I could protect you from anything that might make you sad. Sadly, I cannot protect you from the devastating effects of losing someone so special to you. But I can offer a smile when you need it, a thoughtful ear if you would like to talk, and a hug if you need some comfort. Know that I am thinking of you, and I am very sorry for your loss.
- I am here for you and hope you know that I care deeply about what you are going through and how you are feeling.
- I’m here to support you, no matter what time of day it is. Thinking of you always and sharing my deepest sympathies with you as you go through this hardship.
Condolence messages for a family member.
- [Name], I am so sad to hear that [name] died. I am thinking of you and [names of other affected family members]. I hope that you feel wrapped in love and support.
- Learning of [Name]’s passing was gut-wrenching. I am so sorry for your loss. I hope you are finding strength in your family and the love of your friends; please know we are here for you.
- It is my prayer that our shared memories of [name] will bring comfort during this time.
Remember you are not alone.
We will be on our way shortly to help with [tasks, rituals, etc.]
Know that you are a credit to [name]’s memory. I am sure that [he/she/they/etc.] would be thinking of you fondly and with pride for who you are and how you live your life.
- I am here for you. We’ll get through this together.
- My heart is with you during this time of loss and in the days to come.
- You must have so many memories of [name] that you cherish. Their life is an important story to tell. I can help you/us create a journal or scrapbook in celebration of [name] so you/we can always have those memories to comfort you/us.
- I am incredibly sorry to hear that you lost someone that was so special to you, and I know you are in pain. I am here to help ease your burden and support you in whatever way you need.
Condolence messages for the loss of a partner.
- I tried to find the right words to express just how sorry I am for your loss. Words just don’t seem like enough. I’m so sorry.
- I am so sorry that you’ve lost your life partner, [Name]. I can’t imagine how much pain and sorrow you’re feeling. I know you will need to grieve their loss and the life you thought you would have together. Although it isn’t the same, know that you are not alone as you figure out what life after the loss of [name] looks like.
- I wish that I could ease your pain and help you heal. I hope that this message at least lets you know that I am thinking of you always. My heartfelt sympathies go out to you in this difficult time.
- In times of sorrow, it is not always easy to see the light. If I can help you find a glimmer by giving thanks for the gift that was the life of [name], please know that is what I am trying to do. [Name] was a truly special person, and I am so grateful that you had [him/her/them/etc.] in your life. May [he/she/they/etc.] be at peace.
- Reentering the world can be hard during times of loss. I will take those first few steps with you and help you move forward. We can travel the way forward together. I send my deepest condolences and sympathies for your loss.
- Grief is so personal and a unique experience for each one of us. Feelings can arise without warning at the sound of a favorite song, picture, or special place. It can be overwhelming when that happens. If you ever feel like talking about your feelings or have these experiences, I am here to share in your grief and support you through it.
- If you need a friend, I am here for you. If you need quiet, I am happy to be your peace. If you need to talk, I am listening. If you want to be alone, I can wait. Please know that someone is ready to help and thinking of you as you grieve.
- It’s difficult to imagine moving on with life after losing someone so close to you. I know that you may just want to shut out the world and retreat. Just know that I can be a shoulder for you to lean on, and I am here for you.
- For loved ones who find strength in their faith, it can be useful to find passages from religious texts or prayers for healing and recovery in light of a tragedy.
- I will keep you in my prayers as you go through this tough time.
I am sorry to hear the loss of your loved one. May the Good Lord bless you and keep you and give you inner peace as you face this trying time.
It’s my prayer that God’s words bring you comfort during this difficult time.
May God comfort you and bring you healing for the pain of losing a loved one. Please accept our heartfelt condolences.
- Life without your beloved [insert name] will never quite be the same. We pray that God will comfort your heart and fill your soul with love and peace.
- Praying for you and your family during this challenging time. I hope you feel the power of God’s love and presence in your lives.
- “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” John 11:25,26
- “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning.” Psalm 30:5
Messages to offer help.
Try to avoid saying “call me if you need me” or “what do you need” because the bereaved will not ask for your help, Louis says. Instead, show your love by giving specific offers:
- Please remember I am available day or night.
- I can pick up/drop off your kids.
- I can wash your clothes.
- What is your favorite dish? I would love to bring you some food.
- I know that life looks so different, and you’re still figuring out a new normal. I am available to bring [food item] to you on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I remember that you love Taco Tuesdays. Does that work for you this Tuesday?
- I’m headed to the dry cleaners. I’ll take your clothes too.
- I am going to the grocery store and will pick things up for you; let’s make a list.
“The key to offering help is that it needs to be practical and doesn’t add another task to the bereaved person’s plate,” Robinson adds. “Generic statements like ‘I am here if you need anything’ forces the bereaved person to make yet another decision that they likely won’t have the capacity for.”
Tips to keep in mind:
1. Manage your expectations.
“It is important to manage our expectations when we are reaching out to someone who is grieving,” says Robinson. She says it’s important not to get upset with them if they don’t respond to your condolence message, respond in a timely manner, or if their response isn’t aligned with what you were expecting.
2. Be a memory keeper.
Remind the bereaved person of what the person they lost stood for, their values, and the lessons they learned from them, says Louis, and encourage them to hold on to those things. Their lost loved one will continue to live on through them.
3. Consider actions instead of just words.
Keep in mind that messages are not always verbal. Behaviors can speak volumes, such as holding your friend’s hand. Sleeping over can also be helpful, especially in situations where this may be the first time they have slept alone.
4. Be proactive with offering help.
Robinson recommends trying to avoid making generic offers like “call me if you need me” or “what do you need?”—because they likely will not ask for anything. When a friend is depressed, they may not have the energy for completing basic tasks, but at the same time, they likely don’t want to be a burden or even know what to ask for, Robinson explains. That means, as a concerned friend who wants to help, it’s important to be proactive with providing support instead of waiting to be asked, she says.
Offer specifics, Louis recommends, like bringing over food or groceries. Go over to do their laundry. Ask if they’d like you to sleep over for a night or two.
5. Expect and accept mood swings.
When a person is grieving, especially when they first experience loss, their emotions will be all over the map; they may be fine one moment, and the next they are overcome by emotions. This is all part of the normal grieving process. The best thing you can do is to support them through the emotional highs and lows and give them the space to experience and express a full range of emotions.
6. Avoid giving advice.
It is best to avoid giving advice about what a grieving person “should or shouldn’t do” in the situation. Advice during times of acute emotional distress, though nearly always well intentioned, sometimes has the unexpected outcome of making the bereaved person feel worse. A more effective approach would be to let them know you recognize their loss and you support how they feel and whatever actions they need to take to heal on their terms.
7. Listen without assumption.
Sometimes the best and only thing you can offer to someone who is grieving is a listening ear, says Louis. Assure the person that it is OK to talk about their feelings. Although you cannot erase the pain of their loss, you can provide a great deal of comfort just listening.
8. Don’t pressure people to move on faster.
“While grief is universal, our expression and experience is individual and unique to each of us. We want to be mindful not to try to ‘move’ people along in their grief,” Robinson advises. “Grief is a lifelong journey, which we often revisit because of holidays, anniversaries, and other milestone events. We never really move on from grief; instead, we learn to move forward with it.”
9. Just be there.
“Just be there,” says Louis. “Sometimes people think they need to have the right thing to say. You don’t always need to talk. Sometimes your presence is enough.”
There is no timeline for grief. People who are grieving need time to heal, so be patient and encouraging, and most importantly, be there.
What not to say in a sympathy card.
There are things you should not say in a sympathy card and subjects you will want to avoid. Even though well meaning, sometimes certain sentiments will backfire and not be taken as intended. Our experts offer some specific examples of language to avoid, including:
- God knows best.
- I know what you are feeling.
- God is going to give you more than what you lost.
- It’s for the best.
- They are in a better place.
- It just takes time.
- You can always remarry. / You’ll meet someone else.
Writing condolence messages can be challenging when you are confronted with loss, pain, grief, and other difficult emotions. But these heartfelt messages are an effective way to show the people in your life that you are there for them and that you care about them. Feeling uplifted and supported by friends and family is often the first step on the path toward healing and learning to move forward after a loss.