The Art of the Condolence Note

by Amy Dosser

One Thursday evening in July, eighteen women gathered at the RCWMS office to consider the condolence note. When I first signed up for this workshop by Carol Henderson, I think I was hoping for a lecture on the science of writing to the bereaved. But, alas, as Carol demonstrated, writing is an art, and one needs a compassionate pen when communicating with the bereaved.

As usual in the workshops she leads, Carol brought in her own life experience. To discuss which kinds of condolence notes are more helpful than others, Carol drew from losses she has suffered, including the death of her first child (which she wrote about in her first book, Losing Malcolm: A Mother’s Journey Through Grief).

Carol shared several notes that she had received over the years to help illustrate specific wording that is helpful – and some that is less so. The problem letters were too general or contained too many clichés and platitudes. Also problematic were those that purported to know just how the bereaved felt or what she should expect. (Although sometimes it can be comforting to hear these things from someone who has been through a similar situation and is offering possibilities rather than certainties.)

More comforting are acknowledgements of the death and using specific language: specifics about what the deceased meant to us, about things we remember about the deceased, and about ways that we might be helpful. Rather than writing, “Call if there is anything that I can do,” one might say, “I can take you to lunch one day next week,” or, “I go to the grocery store every Wednesday; let me know if I can pick anything up for you.”

Before the workshop, I went through a group of letters that I had received after my daddy’s death. It was interesting to look at them and find the ones that really meant something to me – and still do. They were the ones that mentioned specific things about Daddy and his life: memories they had of my talking about him or things that had stood out to them in his obituary. It made me happy that a friend would take the time to read about my daddy’s life and comment on it to me.

Carol emphasized that the most important thing is that we find a card (or a sheet of notebook paper, for that matter!), sit down, and write a few sentences from our hearts. And so at the end of the workshop, we took what we learned and each wrote a condolence note. We found that taking the time and energy to write a note is a concrete way to let the bereaved know they are surrounded by love. Just this small act conveys volumes.

Carol Henderson and Participants in The Art of the Condolence Note

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