Doubtless, these are the most difficult letters to write. You are feeling awkward, sad and helpless and are writing to someone who has suffered an enormous loss, be it a death or serious injury or perhaps a robbery, job loss, bankruptcy, natural disaster, miscarriage, stillbirth, death of a pet—you get the idea.
What you should NOT do is ignore the situation. I know you feel awkward, but the person suffering the loss wants to hear from you and will be disappointed if you fail to write. Put their feelings before your own.
Here are a few guidelines that could help you:
1. Use your natural voice. Picture the person you’re writing to and use the same words as if you were face to face. Do not revert to the platitudes, clichés and euphemisms associated with grief, such as “offering condolences,” “the dearly departed,” “loved one,””at this tragic time.” Avoid euphemisms: words for death such a “passed away,” “passed,” “passed on,” “expired” (as George Carlin used to say, “like a magazine subscription”). If a person has died, it is fine to use the words “death” and “died.” That is what happened.
2. Saying you’re sorry is honest. Try to recall a happy occasion or event surrounding the person who died. You can be lighthearted and even funny in your reminiscence; it will bring a smile to the one who has suffered the loss.
3. Don’t ask what you can do to help. That is vague and likely will not be picked up on. Instead, say you will call soon and check on them. Then put this on your calendar and do it.
4. Tell the person who has suffered the loss that you do not expect a response, that you know it is a burden.
5. Close with an expression of sympathy and affection (if appropriate) and a wish that the bereaved find comfort in memories of happy times in the past.
If you are honest and natural, your letter will be gratefully received. You will have done something good for someone in a difficult situation. It is far more meaningful to write honestly and openly than just to send a sympathy card with your signature after the message.