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How to Express Sympathy to a Friend

Late last year, a college friend passed away. Other than at our sorority reunion—18 months ago, when she was still in good health—I hadn’t seen her in decades. But, thanks to email and texts and social media, we’d stayed in touch. And her death hit me hard.

I still haven’t written a sympathy note to her husband. I’m at a loss for what to say to a man I know only through Christmas card photos and Instagram captions and my friend’s comments about their lives.

When I sit down to write, I concentrate so hard on saying the right thing I’ve yet to say anything at all. 

And I’ve learned that’s common.

Sympathy notes are difficult for many of us.

I reached out to a few readers and friends who’ve endured some tough losses in recent years. What did others say or do that was helpful to them?

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“When I received a personal note a friend or acquaintance took the time to write, stamp, and mail, it meant a lot,” says a friend who lost her spouse and mom in the same year.  Those notes telling stories about her husband or mom were extra-special. “I loved reading the cards that took me down memory lane,” she says.

Another reader faced the unimaginable death of a young son. “No matter how much time has passed, a card or note is always appreciated,” she says. “And, although it’s hard to know what to say, say something. We were devastated. Even an I’m sorry was helpful.”

One woman commented on what not to do. She warns against giving advice unless you’ve been through the same thing.

“While everyone grieves in a different way, talking about my late husband is still important to me,” says another reader. “I want people to remember him.” It’s been several years since he passed, but she still cherishes the texts, calls, and messages she receives on the anniversary of his death each year.

“I often lacked the emotional energy to speak on the phone,” says another woman who lost her husband. But thoughtful cards with meaningful messages meant the world to her. She suggests sending a card every week, or every other week, to let the grieving friend know you are thinking of him or her. “It encouraged me when I looked through my stack of cards from caring friends,” she recalls.

From a woman who lost her husband suddenly—“What helped me the most were the friends who took charge of me. When I could barely put one foot in front of the other, they made phone calls and scheduled appointments for me. They put me in the car and drove me to where I needed to go.”

A woman I know lost her dear mom to cancer. “What helped me was knowing my friends were crying with me. And their prayers,” she says.

Kathy had a precious one-year-old in her life. And lost her, unexpectedly, to a childhood virus. To deal with her grief, Kathy wrote and illustrated a book to help other parents and grandparents mourning the death of a child.

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And this from Katherine, a greeting card writer at Hallmark—As a teenager, Katherine lost her older brother when he disappeared on a hiking/rafting trip in the Grand Canyon. People responded to her loss in different ways. “Almost anything you say is better than silence. A simple, but sincere, message is a kind and caring way to reach out,” she says. Here are some of her suggestions:

  • I’m thinking of you.
  • I’m lifting you in prayer.
  • I’m really sorry, and I want you to know I care.
  • You’re in my heart.
  • I love you, sweet friend.
  • I don’t know what to say, but I do know you’re very special to me.

“It’s best not to promise anything you won’t be able to follow through on,” says Katherine. If you offer to drop off groceries, babysit, or call on a certain day, make sure to do so.

Katherine suggests we offer specific ways to help. “For example, I’d like to take you out for coffee on Wednesday. Would you like that? Rather than Let me know if you need anything, which puts the burden on the grieving person who’s already overwhelmed.

On the Hallmark website, Katherine recommends other ways to support a friend or loved one

PS –  counting blessings, symptoms of ovarian cancer, and a word for 2021.

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“How to Express Sympathy to a Friend”

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