The Victorians fetishised mourning, amassing a sombre array of customs and conventions (mourning clothes, elaborate funerals, black-edged stationery and so on) that – in an era of high mortality, especially amongst children – helped them get through frequent bereavements.
Today, we have dispensed with many of these trappings, aiming instead at an open, tolerant approach to the procedures surrounding death, allowing people to devise their own ways of mourning and memorialising their loved ones.
However, there are some customs that are still extremely valuable, and even in an age of texting, email and social media a handwritten letter of condolence is still recognised as an indispensable and time-honoured way of conveying your thoughts and good wishes to a bereaved person. As always, the very act of writing and the trouble you have taken – choosing the stationery, wielding the pen and ink, addressing the envelope, buying a stamp – sends a strong, yet subliminal message, of concern and empathy.
Write promptly after the death is announced and resist the temptation to simply purchase a generic card of the ‘with deepest sympathy’ variety. This is a lazy cop-out, allowing you to rely on the card to convey emotions that you should strive to articulate and communicate yourself.
Letters are written to the individual closest to the deceased, who may be a spouse, partner, parent or sibling. Some people may write to the family member of their own generation they know best, or indeed to more than one person.
Use your natural voice; the tone need not be too solemn (see example below). The letter should focus on the deceased, for example personal recollections, or a mention of distinguishing characteristics or great achievements. If you only knew the deceased slightly and are writing to support the bereaved person, more general expressions of sympathy are appropriate.
Don’t feel paralysed by your inability to convey deep emotions or profound insights – condolence letters are formal acknowledgments of what has happened, they are not a substitute for ongoing love and support.
Conventional phrases such as ‘I was so sorry to hear/read about your father...’ are perfectly acceptable. It is traditional to end the letter by saying no reply is necessary.
A response to letters of sympathy and condolence is not obligatory but many people will choose to reply in due course. If the bereaved person is old or infirm and has received a great many letters then it is quite acceptable to send a printed card, with the sender’s name and address on the top. The card should be signed by hand, and short personal message can be added, if desired.
Traditionally, the wording was in the third person, for example:
Mrs Emma Carmichael would like to thank you very much for your kind letter on the death of her husband.
She has been unable to reply personally to the many hundreds of letters she received but hopes that all those who took the trouble to write will understand and be assured that their letters were much appreciated at this difficult time and will be treasured in the months to come.
It is quite acceptable for the card to be written less formally and in the first person:
I would like to thank you very much for your kind letter on the death of James.
Although I have been unable to reply personally to the many letters I have received, please be assured that your letter was much appreciated at this difficult time and will be treasured in the months to come.
The bereaved person may also want to write personal letters to thank any individuals who have been especially supportive or helpful, have taken part in the funeral service, or perhaps travelled a very long way to come to the funeral.
Sample Condolence Letter
This is an example of a typical condolence letter, with explanatory annotations in italics. It is by no means prescriptive, but may be a helpful start at a difficult time:
General condolence, followed by a reference to your own relationship with the person
I was so very sorry to hear that your father had died. He was a wonderful man and will be very much missed by all who knew him. I have so many happy memories of our childhood holidays together and his amazing sandcastles and our adventurous if not always very fruitful mackerel fishing expeditions.
About the person
Your father was always so encouraging to young people and I can remember him being so kind and helpful when I was worried about leaving my first job and going off to Australia.
Good wishes and sympathy to the family
Please do give mY love to your mother and tell her how sorry I am. Even though he had been so ill it must be a terrible shock, as I know it was for my mother.
Good wishes from the writer’s family
Tom and the children send their very best wishes to you all. Tom fondly remembers their shared sense of humour, not to mention their love of real ale.
Conventional reassurance to end
Please do not reply.
With much love
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