What to Write in a Sympathy Card, According to a Psychologist

Capture the right sentiment when sending a sympathy card with this expert advice from a psychologist who's been there and felt that.

Talking about loss is never easy. But acting like the loss never happened doesn't make recovering from said loss any easier, explains Tracy Thomas, psychologist and founder of Dr. Tracy Inc., an emotional training company in California. In fact, it makes it even more difficult to process the loss. (She knows from experience, and draws many of her reflections here from working with clients throughout the grieving process and losing her dad.)

"This goes deeper than just some feelings of loss and sadness. A person's entire being—including their nervous system, limbic system, and brain chemistry—needs to adjust," Thomas says. "This shift from one reality, when the person was alive, to another, when that person and their energy is gone, is highly emotional. It's the most significant kind of change that humans must adjust to."

woman standing at a desk writing a letter
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Even if people lived far apart from each other or were emotionally distant when the death occurs, the experience is jarring and intense, Thomas adds. The relationship that was is now over, and unlike any other relationship "break up" where separation anxiety might occur, there's a finality to death.

"The transition will require epic emotional strength for the person to adapt to their new reality," she says. This transitional process can require more emotional strength than they have available, and showing up for your friend or family member during that time can help bolster them when they are feeling unsteady. Keep these five pointers in mind as you prepare to write a condolence letter or send a sympathy card.

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Yes, You Should Send a Sympathy Card

If you're wondering, "Should I send a condolence card?" the answer is yes. "Just the fact that you thought about sending a card means that you should send one. People who are going through these challenging transitions need all the support they can get," Thomas says.

The condolence cards she received after her dad died "lifted me up in ways that I never knew a card could do," she adds.

American cultural norms make it difficult and far from comfortable to talk about death in person, but expressing handwritten sympathies can have just as big of an impact without the face-to-face discomfort. (Or perhaps an even bigger one, since the card can be saved and reread during difficult moments.)

"For so many people, the emptiness is the worst part of loss. Every piece of support that reminds them that they are cared for and that they matter to others makes a major difference," she says.

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Realize You're Not Going to Upset the Recipient By Sending One

The individual who lost a loved one is going to be thinking about it whether you send a sympathy message or not, so don't let that deter you from grabbing a pen and writing a personal note.

"There's never a situation where adding more emotional support is something to avoid. Nearly every person needs more support than they are typically willing to admit to themselves and to others," Thomas says.

Think back to the last time you received a piece of snail mail. It feels pretty good to receive a thoughtful card, and even if it's for a less-than-happy reason, knowing that someone wants you to feel better can provide an instant boost.

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Remind the Recipient How Loved They Are

Unsure of what to say? Start with something simple like "you are loved," which is often the perfect sentiment to share.

"Love heals and strengthens people," Thomas says. "Condolence cards are like sending in a huge hug to a person. They can lift the recipient up with a piece of your strength so they can have the emotional strength they need to carry on their daily responsibilities."

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Put Yourself in the Recipients' Shoes

Try to do everything you can to lift a burden off the person who is grieving. They're not only trying to process the loss themselves, but likely are also taking care of others who are grieving too (like kids, parents, or siblings). Put yourself in the recipients' shoes to imagine how you can best support them.

"Don't overcomplicate the situation by trying to do what you're comfortable with. Instead, think about what will comfort the person and that will get you the outcomes you want for them," Thomas says.

After her dad died, Thomas explains that she received the perfect sympathy card at the perfect time from an old friend. It was such a highlight, in fact, that she framed it next to a photo of her dad—which she now looks at daily. The sentiments are notable because they are authentic, sincere, and simple. It reads:

"My apology for the delayed card, but I just learned of your dad's passing. He was always so generous and nice to me. I was saddened to hear the news. I know how much you meant to him and how very proud he was of you! I'm sorry for your loss."

Notice how the words acknowledge that there has been a change in the recipient's life, express sympathy, and mention things she wanted and needed to hear (that her dad was a good guy and that he was proud of her).

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Even If Your Message Isn't "Perfect," It Will Be Treasured.

Never underestimate the impact of a condolence card. In this crazy-busy digital age, few people think to send postal mail.

"I was actually surprised at how few cards I received after my dad died, and that made the ones that I got that much more special and valuable to me. They felt like a lifeline and as if there was still a piece of my dad alive, just because someone was writing to acknowledge his life and his passing," Thomas says.

Showing support during one of the potentially most trying times of this person's life can offer an opportunity for your relationship to grow stronger than before the passing happened.

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