The Art of Condolence


Based upon their study of thousands of condolence letters and analysis of their structure, Leonard and Hillary Zunin (1991) share seven components that provide the writer with a practical, simple, and clear outline for sharing his or her thoughts. Though all seven components need not be included in every letter of condolence, keeping them in mind will provide an effective guide for sharing thoughts in such a letter. The components include:

1. Acknowledge the loss. Mention the deceased by name and indicate how you learned about the death. It is very acceptable to relate personal shock and dismay at hearing such news and such an acknowledgement sets the tone for your letter.

2. Express your sympathy. Share your sorrow in an honest and sincere fashion. In so doing you are showing that you care and relate in some way to the difficult situation they are facing. Do not hesitate to use the words died or death in your comments.

3. Note special qualities of the deceased. As you reflect upon the individual who has died, think about those characteristics you valued most in that person and share them in your letter. These may be specific attributes, personality characteristics, or other qualities. Sharing these with the bereaved help them realize that their loved one was appreciated by others.

4. Recount a memory about the deceased. At the time of a death, memories we have of the deceased person are a most valued possession and something, which can never be in too great a supply. Because the bereaved often have difficulty keeping those memories in the forefront of their thoughts, your sharing of memories will be very gratefully received. Feel free to recall humorous incidents as they can be very beneficial at this time.

5. Note special qualities of the bereaved. Grieving people also need to be reminded of their personal strengths and other positive qualities-those characteristics which will help them through this difficult time. By reminding them of the qualities you have observed in them, you will be encouraging them to use these qualities to their advantage at this time.

6. Offer assistance. Offering help need not be part of a condolence letter, but if help is offered, it should be for a specific thing. An open-ended offer of help places the burden for determining what that help will be on the bereaved and they have enough burdens already. Making an offer to do something specific and then doing it is a most welcome extension of yourself.

7. Close with a thoughtful word or phrase. The final words in your letter of condolence are especially important and should reflect your true feelings. Flowery or elaborate phrases do not help. Honest expressions of your thoughts and feelings communicate best.


From "Book Review of the Art of Condolence," by P. V. Johnson, Fall 1991. In Caregivers Quarterly, 6 (3), 3-4.


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