After a Funeral
Tips on writing a sympathy letter to a friend in the wake of loss and bereavement.
Words of heart-felt sympathy on a card – sincere message of condolence on an email – a simple text expressing sorrow at your friend’s loss – simple but difficult because writing a letter of sympathy is never easy.
In my job as Funeral Director, I hear back regularly from people – maybe a few days after the funeral if they call in to collect mass cards, or perhaps come in to the office or come to collect their beloved ashes after a cremation. And often the bereaved person will say how they’re still getting messages of sympathy – cards, letters, text or emails and how that literally keeps them going.
But quite recently, in the wake of a very tragic and untimely death among my personal friends – the wind was taken out of my sails and I found it almost impossible to put pen to paper.
James was the wonderful young adult son of a close friend of mine – and his death from a short, savage and aggressive cancer left all our circle reeling. Attending the funeral did not feel difficult – I was drawn to be there – that need we feel to show up, show support, pay my respects at such a difficult time of loss, especially for my friend Anne – James was her first-born son.
I knew my friend would welcome words connected to her son. And eventually I faced into that letter, because I knew I would deeply regret it if I didn’t. But because I found the letter of condolence so difficult, I thought I’d pass on some tips that helped me greatly.
You’re not a bad friend just because you find this hard – most people are the same – writing a heart-felt letter of sympathy takes courage. I kept beating myself up, and that delayed me even more. Making a start was the worst part. Once I got into it, the words got easier. Part of my reluctance was that writing meant sitting still, reflecting on James’s death, a part of me avoiding the sheer sadness of that. Avoiding the letter meant avoiding that cold hard fact. But in the end, I was all the better for doing it, confronting the loss in a small way.
Words of Sympathy
Letters of Sympathy are not about perfection. Start with a direct expression of sympathy for their loss and bereavement:
- ‘I’m so deeply sorry for your loss.’
It’s been said a million times, but that’s because those are very powerful words.
- Please accept my deepest sympathy.
- Please accept my sincere condolences.
- My thoughts are with you in these painful days.
- Or – I don’t know what to say, beyond how sorry I am.
A few more examples:
All of the above is perfectly acceptable – it’s a bit like at a funeral – we rush to comfort our friend – and that lovely quaint repetitive phrase particular to Ireland – you hear it in the Funeral Home at the Wake, you hear it in the Church after the Removal service, you sometimes hear it said across the coffin itself:
“Sorry for your trouble – Sorry for your loss”
– the repetition in itself so comforting.
It’s ok if it feels awkward and strange – because of course it’s strange – we are in the presence of raw wounded loss and grief. But we reach out, we embrace our friends, shake hands with others, and messy as it is, we trust this might bring some small solace.
And a kind letter or email does the same – and more! Because words on a page – or a text or an email – written words have the power of endurance.
If you knew the deceased person, do include a memory about them because that will feel like a precious gift to your friend – it might even be an anecdote that they hadn’t heard about their beloved departed – and that will light their moments in dark times. James was a teacher. And when I was offered a place on an MA course, I was on the point of turning it down because my own mother had broken her hip. James talked me through all my doubts and fears and he basically did not stop until Day One of my new course. I knew this would mean a lot to my dear friend Anne.
If it feels right for you, a lovely shop card with your letter tucked inside is always welcome.
Keep your tone gentle – avoid words too stark or painful – like suicide or violence or murder or dreadful painful death – think of softer ways – for example, write about how you hope the dearly departed is at peace after struggle, remind your friend to be gentle with themselves as you can only imagine how this loss must cut into the heart of your friend.
Be mindful of how sensitive your friend will be. If someone has died violently, you’re not glossing over that, but in this first correspondence you are probably seeking to bring comfort.
And let your truth write the words – when my beloved father died – I got a wonderful letter that simply began ‘my heart is breaking for you’.
You can either just let it be known you will give of your time – you can be vague, thus bearing in mind your friend’s privacy – or – it’s perfectly ok to make a suggestion but do say you respect their need for space or solitude also – I told Anne I was available if and when she needed me – ‘coffee, food, a rant, a cry, or just a chat on a park bench!’.
Sometimes I send emails and texts of sympathy – if people are a bit sniffy about this – ignore them. Because any kind of reaching out in words will comfort your dear friend in bereavement.
With my letter to Anne, I was inspired by a woman who came in here to Jennings Funeral Home and showed me a letter of sympathy on the death of her husband. This lady was very tech-savvy – but what she said struck a chord:
‘I’ve had lots of emails, but this letter is precious because I can take it out of my bag even on the bus and I can read the lovely words about my departed beloved.’
Put yourself in the your bereaved friend’s place: when I didn’t want to write a letter, I forced myself to imagine how Anne might feel – I remembered an old hurt – walking down town after my beloved father’s death – very raw and vulnerable – this was only days after Dad’s funeral. I lit up inside when I saw a friend approach – but the second Liz saw me she quickly crossed to street. I know some people freeze up around death, and I get that. But it was deeply hurtful at a dark time.
Short letter or long – it all depends. At the core level, you probably just need to reach across and bring solace. Let someone know you’re there for him or her if they need you. Once you begin your letter, you’ll know – and you’ll write what you sense your friend will welcome.
But do bear in mind that after a funeral, the concentration powers of a person in the throes of grief might be temporarily diminished. So, a 10 page letter might be way too much! Two or three pages will probably prove deeply comforting.
If you didn’t know the person who has died, then you can focus on the qualities in your friend: It was very clear how your love and care for your mother made a huge difference to her quality of life in her days of illness.
Writing to my friend Anne forced me to slow down, reflect on a sad aspect of life I’d rather not reflect upon. But I was all the better for doing it.
Letters of condolences can feel harder than attending the Funeral itself. Because the Removal or the Funeral involves movement and activity. In my recent experience, James’s removal and funeral itself was a busy time. His funeral was being arranged by Undertakers in Limerick – I’m not familiar with the area – so logistically – I had a lot to do. And in one sense, that keeps the sadness at bay for a bit!
I see it here in my job at Jennings Funeral Directors all the time. I had an elderly man called Joseph in here to the Amiens Street branch today – and he knows this area well. But his friend who has passed away is reposing in Jennings of Oscar Traynor Road because of the large attendance – it’s very spacious with a big car park – that family are having prayers, poetry and a eulogy at the Funeral Home before going to the Church. It was clear to me that Joseph was upset – Paul was a childhood friend and they’d gone to school together in East Wall. But it was also clear that what kept Joseph going was coming in to us, ordering a funeral wreath, checking the exact location of Jennnings in Coolock.
And that reminded me how driving to a sad funeral, down the M50 on a busy day was easier than sitting in my quiet room wondering would I write a letter of sympathy. And in the end, to be honest, I got as much comfort from the writing of the letter as I hope Anne got in the reading of it.