New York State Funeral Directors Association

Unfortunately, life gets in the way of death. If you find that you are unable to attend the funeral services of a family member or friend, a sympathy note is the next best thing.

Most funeral homes and newspapers offer online condolences, however, in the case of absence, nothing replaces a handwritten note of sympathy to the survivor.

Sympathy notes and letters are very personal and therefore, do not follow a set form.

When composing your note, heartfelt sincerity is best, a single line expressing your true feelings for the deceased is all that is necessary.

Stay clear of the details of illness or inquiries regarding the manner of death.

Additionally, it is not helpful to suggest that a loved one’s death is a “blessing in disguise” or that the decedent is “better off dead.”

These expressions do not bring comfort to the survivor nor do they offer a resolution.

Asking if there is something you can do to help or suggesting something specific is a kind and appreciated gesture.

“Sara (the decedent) and I enjoyed a friendly competition of neighborly lawn beautification over the years. To honor my friend, I was wondering if it would be okay if I prune your rose garden along with my own, this spring?”

Specific memories, which are kind and will bring the survivor comfort, are also appropriate to include in your note.

“Jean always had a kind word for everyone she knew.”

The following is an example of a sympathy note written at the death of a friend:

Dear John,
Harold and I are very sad that Sara has passed. She was such a dear friend and always went that extra mile to make us feel special. If we can help with the kids, running errands, or anything else, please call us. Know that you are in our daily thoughts and prayers.
With deepest sympathy ... 

Sometimes we write sympathy notes for people who are friends in different areas of our lives. These notes are slightly different from the ones you would write to someone who is a friend in your personal life.

The following is a sympathy note for a friend at work:

Dear Mr. Elder,
Renee was not only a co-worker but also a dear friend to me. She was always willing to help anyone complete a difficult task and ensured that new employees felt welcome at their job. No one was surprised when training department snatched her up for their new ambassador program. If you need anything from us, please let me know. Renee has several family photos here at her office, as well as a few other personal items; I would be happy to see that they find their way home to you. Although our pain cannot compare to your own, we too deeply feel Renee’s passing. She was a wonderful woman.
With deepest sympathy ...

When writing your sympathy note, keep these six tips in mind.

  1. Write in Simple and Understandable Language. Survivors are going through a difficult enough experience without having to try to find a dictionary to decipher your content.
  2. Be Sincere. Honestly express your appreciation for the decedent and their contributions to your life. Do not over inflate their influence or goodness. Remember, the survivor knew them too.
  3. Be Kind. Evaluate your words before you say or write them. Make sure that they have merit and will bring comfort rather than pain to the survivor.
  4. Be Short. Upon the death of a loved one, survivors often suffer confusion, anger, impatience, pain, and many other emotions. Reading long letters may be too arduous a task at this point of recovery.
  5. Offer Assistance. If appropriate, offer to help with chores or spend time with the survivor. Immediately after death, extreme confusion interferes with the usual organization of a survivor’s home and daily routine. Relying upon a trusted soul to help with daily chores and organizational tasks may be greatly appreciated.
  6. Be Supportive. The most important thing to remember when writing a sympathy note is to be supportive. At no other time in life, is loneliness and insecurity so prevailing. Helping a survivor through the trial of adjusting to life without their loved one is one of life’s greatest gifts.


Tracy LeeTracy Lee
Tracy Renee Lee is owner and Managing Funeral Director at Queen City Funeral Home in Queen City, Texas. The author, syndicated columnist and co-founder of Heaven Sent Corp. writes books and weekly bereavement articles related to understanding and coping with grief. An American Funeral Director of the Year runner-up and recipient of the BBB's Integrity Award, Lee writes the blog Mourning Coffee.