Tuesday, June 10, 2014

How To Write A Sympathy Card

Recently a fellow volunteer at the local hospital passed away suddenly, and I was truly distraught to hear the news. She always volunteered with her husband, and they worked the shift that came before mine, so I usually saw them almost every time I came in for my shift for the past 4 years that I've been volunteering at the hospital's gift shop. I wanted badly to pay my condolences to her husband in person, but the service was happening pretty far away, and I had no way of getting there. So instead, I sent him a card with a thoughtful message inside that I hope will help, if not now than at least in the future.

When I decided that I didn't want to leave just a simple note and actually wanted to write something of length to him, I became nervous that I would be doing the wrong thing. What are the big things that you're not supposed to say while somebody is grieving? What things will be appreciated and what will not? Am I going to make him more upset by bringing up a memory about his recently departed wife? That's when I realized that I may not be the only one that grapples with these questions, and perhaps there are others out there that would appreciate a few pointers on this subject.

Let me start that sending a sympathy card to a person or a family that has just lost somebody is always an acceptable thing to do, and you should never worry about overstepping your bounds by that action alone. Also, you will have to accept the fact that there is no "right" way to approach somebody who is grieving, because we all grieve differently and there's no perfect way to deal with somebody experiencing loss. In this post I'll include just a few tips that can help anybody who has experienced a loss recently and wants to do their part and send out their thoughts and prayers.

1) Choosing a Card.

Finding a card shouldn't be difficult. There is a sympathy section in most card stores, even in places like gas stations and dollar stores where they sell cards a bit cheaper. I recommend that you take as much time selecting a sympathy card as you would for a birthday card, to make sure you find the perfect one that conveys the message you would like to send out. If you're looking for something a little bit nicer, I would recommend Papyrus cards, which are where the above examples are from. They make high-quality cards, many of which have a homemade feel. We sell Papyrus cards at the bookstore, and I myself have used the third example there when the grandmother of one of my high school friends passed away last summer.

Of course there is absolutely nothing wrong with making a card yourself, or even using a blank note card if you want to convey something longer than a pre-written message. However, I encourage you to proceed with caution regarding the image on the front of the card. Just like in the examples above, sympathy cards are never made to be too bright or too perky. A neutral image with flowers would certainly work. For the sympathy card I send out recently, I used one of my Polaroid note cards, as you can see in the image here. Something like this would work perfectly for this type of card.

2) Composing a Message.

First and foremost, there is nothing wrong with keeping your message short and sweet. However, I do not recommend letting the card you've chosen speak for itself. Even if there's already a lovely message inside of the card you've purchased, if you don't add anything else to it then it's a clear and concise sign of just how much effort you put in. A few ideas for something to tack on to the poem or message already printed in the card is:
- Our/My thoughts and prayers are with you (and your family)
- We/I offer our/my condolences during this difficult time
- We/I am so sorry for your loss

These are just a few examples. One thing you're going to want to ask yourself when writing a sympathy card is "Am I writing this on behalf of myself, or my family?" As an example, to refer back to last year when the grandmother of my school friend passed away: my mother didn't know his mother or grandmother all that well, but she had met my friend on numerous occasions, so I felt it was only appropriate to extend the sympathies and thoughts to include my family as well. With regards to this card I recently wrote for a fellow volunteer, they had never met my family, so it was a message from only me. Another fact you have to consider is not just the one person your sending this card to, but to their family as well. Unless you are completely sure that they will be the only relative grieving (which is almost never the case), extend their sympathies to their family as well.

The ideas above are merely suggestions. If you want to write a short message, just figure out your own way of expressing that your thoughts, feelings, hopes are with those that are grieving. Have your message express empathy in this type of situation, that is the key factor in anything you try to write.

For those who feel unsatisfied with the idea of merely letting a pre-printed poem and a few carefully chosen words express what they're feeling at this difficult time, let me say very clearly that there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to write a longer message where you share a memory involving the deceased. This is not an invasion on their grief, and this level of thought will be appreciated by the recipients of your card. If you have a story or a memory that you would like to share that you think others would like to hear, then your best bet is to write it down. An important aspect of this is to know your audience, so if your story contains certain subject matter or even profanity, you might want to sensor parts of it.

I also recommend drafting out what you would like to write first, for a couple of reasons. The first is that you only have a limited amount of space in the card (unless you are inserting a letter into the card, which is perfectly acceptable), and the second is that you want to convey your story in the best way possible, since your hope is to express your deepest empathy and sympathy to your reader(s), so take time to draft what you would like to write.

For anybody who is nervous about including a story or memory with their card - afraid that they'll upset their reader and somehow add to their suffering - you really should not worry about such a thing. You are writing this message with the hopes of expressing empathy; your heart is in the right place. Anybody, even those deep in grief, will be able to see that and will appreciate the gesture. To ease your fears a bit more, I will include the message I wrote to my fellow hospital gift shop volunteer, to give you a real-life example.

Dear N,
 This is Kacie. I usually worked the 5-8 shifts at the hospital gift shop right after you and E were done there for the day. E was always kind towards me, always smiling, and I was sincerely grieved to hear of her passing. I’d like to extend my sincerest condolences to you and your family during this difficult time.
There is a specific memory I have attached to E, and it is one I will carry with me always. I always noticed, when you and E were getting ready to leave once I arrived to relieve the two of you, that E almost always made sure to ask you, “Got your name?”, or, “Are you wearing your name?” Of course she was making sure that you had your NHS Volunteer Badge on a lanyard around your neck. But I was always entertained by the way she would say it.
I lost my ID badge about a year ago unfortunately, and I haven’t looked into getting a replacement yet. But I hope that I will get a new card soon. And when I do, and when I make sure that I have it at the end of each volunteer shift, I can bet you anything that I’ll be hearing E’s helpful voice in my head.

My thoughts are with you,
Kacie Cruise

This memory that I shared regarding N's late wife E may be considerably small, but it is something that has always stuck in my head, and it's something that I thought of when I first received the news of E's passing. It's a memory that I hold close to me, and I did my best to express that in my message. I'm hoping that N appreciated reading this memory from me and that he will cherish it as well.

3) Including Extras.

This is completely optional, but perhaps you would like to include something along with your card that involves the deceased, such as some sort of drawing, or even a photograph. If you feel the urge to do this, than don't fight it; this is a perfectly acceptable thing to do as well, and if you come across something that reminds you of the deceased and you think their family might appreciate it as a small gift, then go ahead and send it. For anything else you might want to be including in an envelope, you might want to refer to the post I wrote about How I Write A Letter that quickly briefs certain things that you shouldn't put through the post, whether it's domestic or international.

That's about all the advice I can give. If you have any experience with sympathy cards or advice you'd like to convey as well, please post in the comments below. 

1 comment:

  1. This is always such a difficult thing to handle. These tips are really helpful.