It can be hard to know what to say to someone who has recently lost a loved one. You want them to know you’re thinking of them and share in their sorrow, but you might be struggling to express how you feel in words. Here’s our guide to writing a condolence letter.
Before you start – remember, there aren’t any formal rules about how to write a condolence letter. But you can use the simple structure below to help you send a heartfelt letter to grieving family or friends.
Write your sympathy letter by hand
Even if you don’t have the neatest writing, it’s worth making the effort with a handwritten condolence letter. It will look much more personal compared with a typed message.
Keep your condolence letter short
The next part is often the hardest: choosing what to write in your condolence card or letter.
Try not to overthink it. A clear, short condolence note can often have more of an impact than a long letter. Plus, grieving family members might not feel ready to read a long message.
It’s best to say what you want to say and sign off – try not to repeat yourself or go off topic. A few lines can still be warm and comforting for someone dealing with grief.
Be sincere and heartfelt
If you really don’t know what to say, it’s OK to say that in your sympathy letter. It’s far better to be honest than be silent, and your efforts are likely to be appreciated. Immediately acknowledge their loss and make it clear that you’re also mourning the person who has died.
Share special memories or photos
If you want to say a little more you could share a few memories or thoughts about the person who has died. It’s a sad time, but it’s also important to celebrate the person’s life, so don’t worry about stirring up emotions.
If you knew the person well, say what you’ll miss most about them. It might be their sense of humour, their knack for sharing a few wise words or their enthusiasm for the local football team. Consider including a photograph that you treasure with your letter of condolence too.
If you didn’t know the person well, offer general expressions of sympathy. Let’s say you’re writing a condolence letter to a friend but you weren’t close to the person who has died. You could write ‘I was sorry to hear of your loss’ or ‘I’m sure they will be sorely missed’.
Acknowledge the gap left by the person and the important part they played in people’s lives – as a sister, mother or friend, for example. If you met them once or twice, perhaps share a memorable thing they said or an observation about their character.
Need more inspiration? Scroll down to read some sample letters of sympathy written by or for famous people.
Consider sharing a special poem
If you’re struggling to find the right words to express how you feel, sharing a poem might help. There are many poems about grief and loss, from sad messages to uplifting ones. Once you’ve found one you like, you could write it out in your condolence letter. You can find a selection of condolence poems here.
How to sign off a sympathy card or letter
In the UK, it’s common to end a condolence letter with a short, sincere farewell message. Here are a few common choices:
- ‘With caring thoughts’
- ‘My deepest sympathy’
- ‘Warmest condolences’
Can you sign off a condolence card with ‘yours sincerely’? Yes. It’s a polite and well-meaning expression, so it’s perfectly fine to use it in your card or letter.
Once you’ve signed off, make sure to repeat your message of support. That might mean reminding them that you’re thinking of them, that you’re only a phone call away or that you’re happy to visit as soon as they’re ready for guests.
Famous condolence letter examples
Here are a few letters of condolence examples from the past. Have a look through – it might help you come up with ideas for your own sympathy letter.
A telegram from Kirk Douglas to Jackie Kennedy
The actor Kirk Douglas sent this letter of condolence to Jackie Kennedy after the death of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. It’s quite short but very heartfelt.
MY DEAR MRS KENNEDY I WISH THAT I WERE WISE ENOUGH TO BE ABLE TO SAY SOMETHING AT THIS TIME THAT COULD IN SOME WAY HOPE TO COMFORT YOU ALL I CAN SAY IS THAT YOUR TREMENDOUS COURAGE IS HELPING THE WORLD WITHSTAND A TRAGIC LOSS THAT EVERYONE FEELS MY WIFE JOINS ME IN EXTENDING OUR DEEPEST SYMPATHY. MAY GOD BLESS YOU
A message from King Charles III on the death of Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai was a famous environmentalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner. When she died in 2011, many prominent people sent letters of sympathy – including King Charles, who was then the Prince of Wales. This is what he wrote:
There are few people who have had such a profound impact on the future direction of humanity than Wangari Maathai. Her understanding of the link between human poverty and the quality of the natural environment undoubtedly influenced a generation of environmentalists and policymakers. It is a tribute to her passionate determination that so many people feel such a deep sense of loss at her passing.
I was fortunate enough to work closely with Wangari on a number of occasions over the years and every time I met her I was struck by both the force of her personality and the quality of her intellect. Her passion shone through in everything she did, from her work on women’s equality to her tireless championing of the rainforests. I, like so many others, will miss her more than it is possible to describe and send my most heartfelt condolences to her children and to everyone who knew her, loved her and depended upon her.
Writing a condolence message is an important show of support for the family and friends of the person who has died. It can also help you begin to come to terms with your own grief. Learn more about coping with bereavement in our advice centre.
- Kirk Douglas’s telegram to Jackie Kennedy
- King Charles III’s letter on the passing of Wangari Maathai