Understanding Etiquette Part Five: Sympathy Letters

The Modern Day Man_Letters

Welcome back to Understanding Etiquette – the series where we get to grips with the customary codes of polite behavior, and how to abide by them.

In last edition, we talked about the right way to write an e-mail in the business world. Today, though, we’re talking about something much more personal; the sympathy letter.

Sympathy letters are never easy to write. Whether the recipient is going through an illness, a personal crisis or a bereavement, it’s a difficult correspondence to make. But, knowing how to write a sympathy letter is a tremendously important skill. The truth is that these correspondences do bring comfort to the recipient during a time of need.

If you need to write a sympathy letter and are struggling to find the right words, this guide can help.

Always write it

“They probably know I’m thinking of them.”

Plenty of people who are anxious about writing a sympathy letter will justify not sending one with this statement.

And here’s the thing: the recipient doesn’t doubt that you’re thinking of them. But, actually sending a correspondence makes that thought tangible. It can bring a genuine comfort, however small, during a difficult time.

No excuses then. Write it. Send it. Remember that, however difficult you might find it to pen the thing, it’s nothing compared to the difficulties the recipient is facing.

Write promptly

Letters of sympathy might be difficult to write, but they’re not something you should put off doing. Time is of the essence when it comes to these kinds of correspondences for two reasons:

  • If your letter arrives months after the news of someone’s personal crisis, it feels like your correspondence was an afterthought.
  • If you put off writing the letter, then chances are you’ll forget about writing it altogether.

If you find out that a friend or family member is going through a difficult time, then get your letter sent off as soon as possible. It might be hard to write, but a prompt correspondence shows the recipient that you genuinely care about them.

Remember what it’s for

When writing a letter for a solemn occasion, it’s easy to fall into the trap of trying to be profound or philosophical. It’s a well-intentioned goal: you want to say something meaningful that will take away some of the pain that the recipient is feeling. The truth, though, is that you can’t. Something bad has happened, or is happening to that person and there’s probably very little you can do about it.

What your letter needs to convey is solidarity and empathy. Don’t worry about trying to say something wise and meaningful, and remember, your recipient isn’t looking to you to alleviate the situation. Your aim here is simply to let that person know you’re thinking of them. Don’t be afraid to keep it simple and from the heart. That’s what matters.

Offer your help

Following on from point number one, letting someone know that you’re thinking of them extends to letting them know that they can rely on you. “If you ever need anyone to talk to/if you want to hang out to take your mind off things, just give me a call” – it’s a simple statement, but reaching out in that way can bring a lot of comfort. During times of personal crisis, it’s easy to feel isolated. Letting the recipient know that they’re not alone can be very comforting.

Don’t compare your situation to theirs (unless it’s actually comparable)

“I know just how you feel”; we use this phrase all the time in day-to-day life to show that we empathize with the situations of friends, colleagues or family. And, in the context of normalcy, it’s a pretty effective show of solidarity. However, if you’re writing a letter of condolence or of sympathy, then you’re well beyond the realms of normalcy, and different rules apply.

Before you try comparing your situation to the recipients, ask yourself if it’s truly comparable. If you have a similar experience of bereavement, divorce, illness etc., then sharing your experience of your situation could be helpful. If you don’t, though, you run the risk of coming across as self-centered. The letter becomes about how you felt during a particular time in your life, rather than how the recipient is feeling right now.

The truth is, you don’t always have to understand how the recipient is feeling. If you’re talking to someone who’s been diagnosed with cancer, or whose child has died and you’ve never experienced those things, you probably won’t. And that doesn’t matter. Again, remember that you’re not writing to alleviate the situation, but to show support.

Make it neat

Back in 2009, (then) British Prime Minister Gordon Brown came under fire because of a sympathy note he sent to the family of a killed solider. Why? Because the letter had numerous spelling mistakes and was written in a hastily scrawled handwriting.

At the time, this made national news in the UK and caused a minor outrage. Brown’s letter was sincere in its content, but not in its presentation:

“He said, ‘I know words can offer little comfort’. When the words are written in such a hurry the letter is littered with more than 20 mistakes, they offer no comfort,” said the letter’s recipient, Mrs. Janes.

There’s an important lesson to learn from this. Your sympathy note needs to look as considered as the words it contains. That means immaculate handwriting, rigorous proofreading and correct grammar.

If handwriting is not your strong point, then there’s nothing wrong with typing your letter (it’s probably what Gordon Brown should have done). Whatever you do, make sure that the end result is neat, presentable and reflects the sentiments of its content.   

That’s it for this edition. Make sure you join us next time, when we’ll be talking about etiquette dos and don’ts in the world of business.