shelf improvement

How to Write a Sympathy Card

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

In the Cut’s recurring books column, Shelf Improvement, we delve deep into our bookshelves to find recommendations that never go out of style.

When something horrible happens to a friend or co-worker — an illness or a death in the family — I immediately know I should write a sympathy card. And every time I sit down to write, I have no idea what to say.

A few years ago my mom found the book Thinking of You: A Card Greeting for Every Occasion. It looks like a basic Scholastic book for adults, but don’t let the tacky cover fool you: This book has all the right words, for when it’s so difficult to find them.

It’s structured like an all-purpose guide to greeting cards, with chapters on what to say for occasions like a co-worker’s promotion, departure, or retirement; or for engagements, weddings, and anniversaries. For each occasion, the chapter lists about a dozen two-sentence notes that are already written out for you, so you can choose sentences you like, and then write the letter in your own words. (Or plagiarize it entirely!)

Here are three condolences among many in the “Sympathy” chapter, the only section I turn to, which tailors each note to the specific kind of loss you need to address:

For the loss of a parent: “Please accept my sincerest condolences on the passing of your dad. He will always be remembered as a hardworking, honest, and respectable man, and a great father. My thoughts are with you and your family.”

For an unexpected loss: “Words seem inadequate to express the sadness we feel at the tragic loss of [name]. Our hearts go out to you and your family in your time of sorrow.”

For the loss of a loved one after an illness: “We are very saddened by the passing of [name], but we know [he/she] is now truly at peace.”

My copy is now wedged into an unseen corner of my bookshelf, ready for whenever I might need to reach out to a friend.

If you buy something through our links, New York may earn an affiliate commission.

How to Write a Sympathy Card