The ideal sympathy note will be short, positive and supportive of the family. If someone never “knows what to say” on such occasions, “I’m sorry and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers” is enough. Sending the note is the important part, not its eloquence, or lack thereof.
The sympathy note has been around for many years, as people generally want to show a friend or loved one they are remembered in their time of grief. The sympathy note is a civilized custom and has endured as long as people have expressed their feelings using the written word.
Many customs were formalized in the 18th and 19th centuries, and one was the sympathy note. The note was often sent on black-bordered stationery or card stock, befitting its somber subject. They were sometimes hand delivered to the home, but as the mail became more reliable, they were sent in that way as well.
The sympathy note can be sent as soon as someone learns of a death, but it may also be sent after the funeral or a couple of weeks later. Sometimes the worst part of a death is after all the arrangements have been finalized and the loved one is memorialized. The shock begins to wear off and people often find the few weeks after the funeral to be unbearably empty. A sympathy note at this time may be just the show of support and friendship the grieving person needs.
A sympathy note need not be long, elaborate or unnaturally eloquent. It can simply express sorrow for the loss and the reassurance that the person is in the sender’s thoughts and/or prayers. If the sender knew the deceased personally, a short, happy memory may be included, such as: “I remember how your mom always made cookies for us after school and how much fun she was.”
These words bring great comfort to the families. They know their loved one was important to others, and this is vital in moving through the grieving process. Sad memories or bad character traits should never be mentioned in a sympathy note. That is the height of poor taste, and borders on cruelty.