Women Discuss: How to Express Condolences (And Why It’s So Important!)

Welcome to a new DW series called “Women Discuss,” in which women discuss topics relevant to being a woman in the world (like dating, marriage, motherhood, navigating careers, being a stepparent, coping with grief, heartache, all sorts of relationship and friendship issues, transitioning into middle age, caring for aging parents, embracing political activism, etc.*). Today we’re discussing condolence cards/expressing sympathy (a subject inspired by this recent forum thread): why it’s so important, what to say, and what not to say.

In the fall, I received a very sweet card from the sister of a close friend of mine. She was writing to thank me for a condolence card I sent after she lost her daughter at birth, exactly five years earlier. At the time, when her sister texted me the devastating news, I couldn’t imagine what she must be going through, and I didn’t really know what to say, but I knew I had to say something, I had to convey my heartfelt sympathy to her and let her know, mother to mother, how sorry I was for the loss of her baby.

In her card to me five years later, she told there was one word I said to her that meant more than anything. Below, she shares what the word was, and we hear from her and a few other woman about their experiences losing loved ones (children, a spouse, parents, pets), what expressions of sympathy were most comforting to them and what would have been better left not said. And then I share a few tips for writing a meaningful condolence card.

Just say something

“Five years ago, my life changed forever when I lost my daughter, Palmer, at birth. It felt as if my heart had been ripped right out of my chest. In the days that followed, we received an endless stream of cards, private messages, comments, emails, flowers, texts and phone calls, and I appreciated each and every message we received (and saved them all!), because each one was an acknowledgment of my daughter and our overwhelming grief. It didn’t matter what was written inside, all that mattered to me was the love each message contained, which helped to shine light into a time otherwise full of darkness.

Although I appreciated them all, there were a select few that took on more meaning to me — two come to mind in this moment. The first was from my sister’s friend. Without looking at the card I don’t recall everything she wrote, but I do remember that she referred to me as a mother. That one word meant more to me than I could ever express.

The second was a private message I’d received on Facebook from my former boss. Again, I don’t recall the exact wording, but I do remember her saying that time should stop when a child dies, and that was EXACTLY how I was feeling at the time.

On the flip side of things, there were those who said nothing. Now I understand that it must be difficult to find the words. I mean, what the hell do you say to someone who’s just lost a child? I get it. Or maybe they were worried they might say or write something that would upset me or make me sad, but, I can assure you, there are no words in existence that could hurt WORSE than losing my daughter. The silence, however, was pretty damn close.

So my advice to those of you sending condolences is that it doesn’t matter how you send it (card, email, text, PM, etc.), or what you say; what matters most is that you send your love at all. If you don’t know what to say, find a card that says it for you and sign it “with love” or “this fucking sucks!” or “sending you prayers,” or even, with just your name, because sending something is far better than sending nothing at all.” — Mara

But resist saying you don’t know how they’re surviving this

“My son Davey died April 27, 2014. He had been out with friends and, because he didn’t drink, he was the designated driver. He had just dropped off a friend who had been drinking and was hit by two cars that were street racing with their headlights off. He died instantly. He was 25.

The outpouring of love and support that we received from friends, neighbors and family was one of the few things that I remember during that time. I received many, many condolence cards. I will say that I couldn’t read them for a while. When I finally did, I was comforted by the comments from people who just wanted me to know they were thinking of me. I had a few “well meaning” people who wrote things like “he’s in a better place” (maybe, but not comforting to a mother who needs her baby back) or “I don’t know how you are surviving this, I couldn’t if anything happened to one of my kids” (really? if that isn’t the most backward ass compliment, I don’t know what is).” — Debbie

If you knew the deceased, send a message to his or her closest loved ones, even if you didn’t know them personally

“My mother passed away unexpectedly when I was a teenager. One of the condolence cards I received that meant the most to me was from her coworkers, most whom had never met me. It was comforting for me to know that there were even more people thinking of me and rooting for me than I had realized. I think a condolence card is a really nice gesture of support, even if it’s not someone you’re close to – it’s more people who knew and will remember your loved one. I appreciated every person who took the time to reach out to me.

I also appreciated when people would share a quick story or personal comment about my mom. It made the sentiment feel more genuine, and made me feel like she wouldn’t be forgotten.

I didn’t like when people told me they knew what I was going through. Grief is such an individual thing, but also – don’t make someone else’s loss about yourself. Focus on the person and their loss, and offer your support.” — Jenny

Share a happy personal memory

“I was widowed at 31 after 2-1/2 months of marriage. I’m closing in on my sophomore year of widowhood and it’s been a trip. As far as condolences go, I found the most sincere ones came from those people who were comfortable enough with the fact that they didn’t know what to say, and that there really wasn’t anything to say that would change the unimaginable emotional and physical pain I was in. Those family members, friends, and acquaintances who weren’t afraid to sit in the grief with me, even momentarily, meant the most to me. It made the moments of despair not only less isolating, but also let me know how much my husband was loved by others and would be missed by all.

The absence of condolence messages was also noticed. I would hear later that some close friends “just didn’t know what to say” and thought that, by not acknowledging it, it would somehow be better? Look, I get it. Death makes people uncomfortable. But you know what else is uncomfortable? Having to live every day without the person I planned to spend every day with. Trying to not make the grieving person upset by not mentioning the loved one tends to backfire. All I can say is, I’ve learned more compassion for those who are struggling. And when it comes down to it, the best thing you can say is how sorry you are and that you know there just aren’t any words to justify the pain. Lastly, offer a happy personal memory about the one who passed. I loved hearing stories from my husband’s friends who knew him before I came along.” — Emily

Express heartfelt sympathy when a beloved pet dies

“My dear shihtzu, Journey, was sixteen years old when it was apparent his health was declining. We took him to an emergency clinic where it was advised to euthanize him. It was the most difficult but right decision. I was blown away with how devastating it was. While friends and family were “sorry for my loss,” I felt they believed I was overreacting with my grief. A few days later a card came from the clinic. I don’t remember exactly what the hand written note said, but it acknowledged my grief. While the clinic only knew Journey during his last few moments, they understood how much he meant to me and what a difficult decision it was. I realized they must write dozens of these notes a week, but I believed the words were truly heartfelt. Those people closest to me could not understand what I was going through, yet this personal card from strangers gave me solace in the knowledge I was not crazy for grieving so deeply for my dear Journey.” — Sue

I felt the same thing when my 19-year-old cat Simone died this past October. It was, and remains, the deepest grief I’ve ever felt. I know there are harder losses down the pike, and the loss of my grandmother a month to the day before Simone died was also painful, but losing Simone felt like losing a part of myself. The cards and flowers and texts and messages (here, on social media, through email) really made me feel better. And, like Sue, the card I received from the vet was especially helpful. She said I made the most loving decision (euthanasia) and that Simone was so lucky (of course, I felt like the lucky one having 19 years with her), which lifted any remaining guilt I had. — Wendy

Just send the bloody thing

“My husband died suddenly of an aortic dissection on a beautiful May evening in 2015. He was at home with me and my 14-year-old daughter at the time; we were watching TV and waiting for an Indian takeaway and within minutes nothing was ever the same again.

I think the most important thing for me is that people actually sent *anything*. It really didn’t matter how awkward, generic or brief the messages were; to us, each card was a reaching-out that let us know we weren’t alone and that can’t be underestimated. There was no such thing as a bad card. The ones that stood out were the ones that mentioned a specific memory. For example a colleague recalled that she used to love that Kev and I held hands until the very moment we walked into work (we worked together as teachers in a prison) and had to become ‘professionals’ rather than ‘partners’; we also used to sing as a duo, so memories of our performances were also lovely.

The cards that spoke to both me and Ella were fabulous – they spoke direcly to a young woman who had just lost her dad, and at the time she needed to hear those voices of support far more than I did. The best one was the one that stated that “Everything is a bit shit”: it was true, and made us laugh – just perfect.

If I were to give anyone advice, it would be just to send the bloody thing. Just sign your name, say you’re sorry, whatever. The gesture is the important thing, not your impeccable language skills.” — Suzi

There are lots of way to show support when someone loses a loved one, but the easiest and fastest way is through a heartfelt condolence card or message. Here are some things to say in your condolence message:

1. If you knew their loved one, share a positive memory you have of him or her.

2. If you didn’t know their loved one, share something positive you remember hearing about him or her or the relationship between your friend and them. (Even “You always spoke so highly of your father. It was evident how much he meant to you” is good. Or “Your mother was so proud of you — she talked about you and your brother at work all the time.”)

3. If you never heard anything about the lost loved one, or if what you heard or know was negative or complicated, know that complicated relationships can sometimes be the hardest to grieve, so express that you’re thinking of your friend.

4. When all else fails, a few phrases that are appropriate: “S/he was so lucky to have you,” “Words fail me now, but please know you are in my thoughts constantly,” “This is so unfair,” “May the memories be of comfort,” “I miss him so much, too” and “She will never be forgotten.”

Avoid saying:

1. Their lost loved one is in a better place.

2. This was God’s plan.

3. This happened for a reason.

4. You know exactly how they feel.

5. Nothing. Seriously, please say something when someone you know — even just an acquaintance — loses a loved one, even if it’s belated. I would imagine that, even months after a loss, knowing that someone is still thinking of you would be comforting.

Anything you would add?

P.S. A nice gift for someone you’re close to who has lost a loved one is a box to store condolence cards. When Drew’s dad died a few years ago, I got him a box like this, and I had it engraved to say “In Memory” with his dad’s initials. I know that meant a lot to him.

* If you would like to contribute to future Women Discuss posts, shoot me an email at wendy(AT)dearwendy.com with “The Hive” in the subject line. If you want to share your age, marital status, where you live, and whether you have kids, that would also be great. And if you’d just like to share ideas for topics you want to read more about, feel free to pass those along, too. Thank you!!


  1. This is really a great article, thank you for writing it Wendy.

  2. For some reason people felt compelled to share stories of their own losses when I experienced the devastating loss of a parent (at a relatively young age). In the cases where it was comforting, people shared that they, too, lost a parent at a young age – it’s a terrible secret club that no one wants to join – but then turned the focus back to listening and supporting me in my fresh grief.

    In other cases, people shared stories of various other kinds of losses and turned the situation into one where I felt like I had to comfort them (instead of the other way around) when I really had no emotional energy to do so. I can respect that people grieve older or more distantly related relatives but to do the math and realize their loved one lived some 40+ years longer than my parent…hard for my bruised hard to muster a lot of sympathy at the time.

    1. This happened to me too when my dad died this year. Like, paragraphs from coworkers I had never really interacted with or even met in person about how it was to lose their parent. It felt like they wanted me to do emotional labor when I had nothing in me.

      1. Oof, sorry to hear that, and my sympathy on your loss. I hope you have been able to find the support and comfort you need.

    2. Just realized my last line should read “hard for my bruised heart” not hard 🙂

  3. I’ve always liked this “If Tears Could Build a Highway” poem but I’ve avoided sending gifts like this one,


    because I didn’t want to trigger the recipient with the words about heaven. In the past, I’ve sent copies of old photos I had of deceased loved ones. I’ve also sent gift cards with a message of self-care, but I always wonder if it comes off as impersonal.

    I feel apprehensive about with balancing being authentic, being kind, and behaving in a socially tone-deaf manner, so I appreciate online discussions such as these ones.

    1. I would say definitely don’t send a plaque like that because you’re right, you don’t know if they would like it or be ok with the sentiment. But pictures, yes.

  4. This was really great to read Wendy. I haven’t had to deal with grief myself since I’ve became an adult, but still I got a lump in my throat reading through those letters. Hopefully I remember your advice when inevitably someone close to me loses a loved one.

  5. Avatar photo juliecatharine says:

    This was such a good article and so spot on. I’m very lucky that the worst loss I’ve suffered was my dog, Ruby, last year. I was devastated (still am) but having friends reach out with cards and flowers was amazing. It helped so much to have my grief acknowledged. The other thing that I’m grateful for are the folks at doggy day care who will talk about her on occasion. It’s a relief to know that we’re not the only ones who remember her.

  6. Northern Star says:

    I believe silence is the worst. And not knowing what to say is really just an unacceptable excuse. There are so many resources online. There are lovely cards if you don’t personally know how to express your condolences. (Buy two you like, and hand-write the message from in one in the other.)

    To your list, I would add: If you can, show up at the funeral and sign the guest book. It means a lot to know how many people care that your loved one has passed away.

  7. Thank you for the kick in the butt–I was guilty of not saying anything specific recently because of not knowing what to say or how/when to say it.

    Do any of you have any thoughts on how to handle this in a work context? One of my coworker acquaintances lost his mom over Christmas break. If it were me, I would find it hard for people to be reminding of my sorrow during the workday, since he seems to be trying to continue with things with a sense of normalcy, but days have passed and I haven’t been able to see him at the end of the workday. Should I just send him an email toward the end of his shift, or wait until I can talk to him in person at the end of the day, or just say something whenever I can?

    1. Why not a card? That way he could open it after work if he’s afraid he’ll cry?

    2. Northern Star says:

      I agree with Kate. Go by his office and hand him a card (or leave it on his chair, or deliver it through interoffice mail). Say, “I’m sorry for your loss, Bob. I should have given you this sooner,” if he’s there.

    3. I just wrote a huge post on this. A card signed by a few people and left on his desk (versus handing it to him and having him need to respond) is ideal. Please don’t email. He knows you care.

  8. I know Suzi, who’s quoted above, and I’d say she’s spot on.

    The two comments I’ve found least helpful are:
    – ‘Stay Strong.’ I might, and I might not. I reserve the right ti collapse in a weeping heap on the floor if I need to. And besides, what’s weak about grief? Grief is a version of love, and love is one of the strong things!
    – ‘You’re doing brilliantly’ or any variant thereon. I don’t WANT to be good at this stuff. Not any of it. Not organising funerals or dealing with intestacy or cleaning out cupboards and drawers and deciding what happens to things or collecting ashes and death certificates…. None of it.

    1. LisforLeslie says:

      So true. I like to say that no one experiences grief the same way and each person has their own timeline to process a loss.

      Of course, there does come a time when someone gets “stuck” in their grief but that’s a different conversation.

  9. I lost my grandma (who was like a second mother to me) and my dad within 6 months of each other. I will say, not EVERYONE wants condolences. I didn’t know until all of this happened, but I am extremely private in my grief and my anxiety was too intense to handle anyone else’s emotions.

    I often felt like people were reaching out because they felt it was a social obligation or because they wanted to feel like they were a good person (it was my anger/anxiety). Many times people said overtly religious things to me (my father was and I am an atheist) which is never ok unless you know 100% that person is religious and wants to hear it (“will you pray for him” “yes I will pray for him”). Or they reached out too much, causing a burden. Or the lady who offered her MLM oils “for stress” to me and my mom after asking for the funeral details. F her. I appreciated quick facebook comments or texts that didn’t require responses – it didn’t add more to my overfull plate.

    The worst was my boss sharing the news of my father’s death to all of my coworkers without asking me (after I had previously asked for them not to share news when my grandma passed). I had been out of work for a month helping to care for him, and the last thing I wanted when I came back from work was a flood of email condolences from coworkers (people I want and need to feel professional in front of). I came back working from home at first…the random IM condolonces and emails would show up unexpectedly and disturb my workflow and throw me into sobbing fits. When I finally did go back to the office, I asked a friend I worked with to tell everyone to please not mention anything about my father, even a nice comment/condolences, because I knew I would break down and wanted one place I could feel normal. I know it made a few people uncomfortable because it was the elephant in the room. But I knew they cared, and sometimes giving people space to grieve the way they need to matters.

    1. Agree that a card is the best option. Emails seem to require a response and that can feel like a huge amount of work when you are drowning in grief and potentially dealing with complicated family/estate/other issues.

    2. I will add on to the list of things to never, ever say:

      If someone was with someone through a long illness or was a caregiver don’t tell them how “wonderful it was for them to have that time with them.”

      My dad decided to euthanize himself (via induced coma and no food/water), and had severe mental health issued on top of his declining health. I got to say goodbye to him, sure, but I had to watch him choose to die and waited hours for his body to finally let go. The entire experience was agonizing. It wasn’t all sharing memories and wisdom and laughs.

      My best friend’s dad died in his sleep a few months later. We concluded it doesn’t matter how it happens – it’s terrible and no one is lucky.

      1. anonymousse says:


  10. When Simone passed, I tried to write about my similar experience in the comments, but I cried so hard writing it that I wound up deleting it and leaving simpler condolences instead.

    It was so similar to your experience, Wendy. My beloved grandmother passed away about a year before my cat. My grandmother’s passing was painful and sad, but it was also a mercy as she had been suffering with Alzheimer’s for a decade at that point. There was a calmness to it. In many ways, I’d been grieving her for 10 years already.

    My lunatic of a cat got sick unexpectedly. She was only 8, and I’d adopted her from a rescue organization as a kitten. She was with me through half a dozen apartments, through job loss, and heartbreak. When she met my now-boyfriend she adored him, even though her demonic heart had previously only had room for me in it. I like to think he was her parting gift to me. Her death was traumatic. Her cat cardiologist (a real thing!) had advised against putting her down, but unfortunately she did not respond to the medication. She died in my arms in the back of an uber only 3 weeks after she began treatment. I was rushing her back to the animal ER, but she didn’t make it. She was terrified and in pain and I felt like such an awful failure of a cat mom. The pain of losing her was like nothing I’d felt before. I was so confused by how this pain seemed so much greater than the pain of losing my grandmother. I knew logically that Rafi was a constant in my adult life and that without her I felt unmoored, that in a way I’d already had years to mourn my grandmother, but it was still confusing. I saw Rafi everywhere for months after she was gone: swishing around doorways and jumping onto furniture. But it was only shadows and light, and my heart ached every time.

    Many people sent me condolences. One of them was from the super of the building I used to live in on the lower east side. She shared a few funny stories about Rafi and it meant to world to me. I never forgot it. I actually just emailed her about a week ago because she does a lot of cat fostering, and my boyfriend and I recently decided it’s time to open our hearts again.

    Thank you for this post. The ache didn’t make it too hard to share this time.

    1. Thank you for sharing that. I know what you mean about grieving your grandmother before she died; that’s how I felt about mine, too. I’d been grieving her for at least five years, she’d been wanting to die for a while, she was suffering so much for so long and it felt like a blessing when she was finally relieved of her constant pain and discomfort. Losing Simone was much more traumatic and the ache is still with me every day.

      I’m sorry for the loss of your cat, and hope you and your boyfriend find the perfect furry companion for your family.

    2. I lost my previous dog when he was 8 too, also 3 weeks after his diagnosis (stomach tumor) and also before I was able to get him to the vet to be put to sleep. It was incredibly traumatic and in hindsight I should have said goodbye sooner, but no one at the vet talked to me about it. Animals man, they wreck you.

    3. Thanks, guys. I’ve been so apprehensive about getting another pet ever since Rafi. It’s time though. I’m even a little excited to see what kind of creature the universe brings to us.

  11. If you needed a reason to cry at work, this post was it. Thank you DW and the writers who shared their stories. I’m so sorry for each of your losses and I send you a big internet hug.

    There are two things I learned about death and grief from my parents. Support and honor.

    My older sister died from a rare liver disease shortly before her second birthday. Every year on her birthday, my dad sends my mom flowers. My sister would have turned 41 this year. One of my nieces shares her middle name and the other shares her first.

  12. anonymousse says:

    If someone you care about to has lost someone sometimes just being there to help in any capacity is the best thing to do.

    Our friends did a meal train for about 10 days or so directly after our tragic loss. It was so good not to have to make a decision or make anything. When we were moving, they came took furniture apart and packed with us without us asking.

    1. 100%. When my mom died (I was 21), my dad immediately sold our house and was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown before making any moving arrangements. An army of friends showed up to help me deal with closing on the new house, packing, and renting trucks. We got the last few boxes out just as the new owners showed up. I don’t know I would have done without them – probably had my own nervous breakdown.

      Immediately after my mom’s death, when I was still in shock and couldn’t really do anything, one friend kept coming over and would just sit with me. Sometimes I’d just cry or sit in silence, sometimes I’d show her photos and tell her my memories, and she’d just listen. I’ll never forget how much her presence meant to me.

    2. LisforLeslie says:

      Oh yeah, when my dad died one of my mom’s friends just took over. When sitting shiva people bring food, so she organized all of my mom’s friends who ordered food from different caterers (to be honest, it was too much food ) and arranged for someone to help with cleaning. She was a whirlwind.

  13. At my vet clinic we write a quote attributed to Helen Keller in every sympathy card:

    What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.

    I tear up every time I write it, thinking of both the animals and people I have lost and keep in my heart. It was nice to read that your vet’s card alleviated your guilt, Wendy. I hope ours are doing the same for our clients.

    1. Oh, it did, and I sent her a thank you email and told her I much I appreciated it (she also called me after the ER alerted her that a patient of hers died, and she talked to me for a bit and was so sweet. I’ll never forget that.)

  14. I agree to say something. I lost five family members in less than 2 years. I was a wreck for a long time, more than anything due to once i had calmed over one death, the next came. My boss rudely accused me of making up lies to get out of work and not a single person I know said one thing to me the whole time. Even at my grandfathers funeral, which was the hardest for me, my own family didn’t speak to me other than normal talk. I set everything up, cleaned up after everyone, refilled drinks, all with tears flowing. Not their normal behavior but it really made it harder for me.

    1. Yesterday was also the 2 year anniversary of my Aunts death. The last time I saw her as I was saying goodbye I started crying. I really couldn’t explain why. She said “it’s ok dear, I’ll see you again”. She wasn’t in horrible health where it was expected she would pass soon, but had some health issues that would lead to that. No idea why I felt that way at that moment, or how she knew exactly what I was thinking, nothing had happened to cause my tears, she just knew that I had the feeling I wouldn’t see her again. I never did but all day yesterday kept hearing her voice and thinking that she knows I will one day.

  15. Nothing to add, I just wanted to say that I loved this post. Thanks so much.

  16. At the services for my uncle & aunt, I spoke with a friend of theirs whose husband had passed away not long before. I had never met her husband but mentioned how my aunt & uncle had often spoken very highly of him. Hearing how much her husband had been appreciated was one of the few bright spots in an otherwise very sad day for us both.

  17. Thanks for posting this, Wendy. I try to send sympathy cards when I can, though it is tough to know what to say. I usually don’t hear from the person about it but I know they have a lot going on so I wouldn’t expect it. The one time I did hear about a card I sent was from my mom’s cousin – I’ve met her over the years and I’m Facebook friends with her, but we’re not really close. Anyway, her husband died, then she seemed to be doing ok and I saw she was dating this new guy for a year or two before he also died suddenly. I had sent a card when her husband died and it sounded like she got an outpouring of sympathy for that. When her boyfriend died, I also send a card. I did in part because she’d been through so much but also because it seems that sometimes if you’re dating but not married, there isn’t as much acknowledgement. And I’m glad I did – afterwards, my mom told me that her cousin had been really touched by my thoughtfulness on sending that second card. My guess is that she didn’t get that many cards the second time around.

  18. My cousin’s son died two days ago of a rare brain tumor and I haven’t been able to sleep. We had been building an adult friendship that was growing stronger and closer over the last four years, especially after he got engaged and we (my husband and young children) embraced his now wife. Was wife? I dunno. Through his short, aggressive illness, I’ve grown even closer to his now widow, especially after the crazy behavior of my aunt, his grandmother, and my cousin. I had been keeping it together so well – striking a balance and supporting everyone through it all. But now he’s dead I can barely stand it. I feel like I’m spinning out and don’t know what I’ll do when we fly out for the funeral. This post helped me a bit and I thank you for your comments. I guess I don’t feel I have a right to be so fraught – he wasn’t my 28 year old son/grandson, m husband of only 10 months. But it’s still so intensely awful.

  19. My mom died on January 19, after four horrible weeks of starving herself to death. She wasn’t thinking clearly. She’d had two strokes and decided she wanted to die and there was nothing that I, the doctors, or the caseworkers involved in her case could do about it. Only her husband had the legal power to insist on a feeding tube.

    Seeing your parent starve to death is a terrible thing to see.

    My friends and some family members were there for me during the four weeks that she was in the hospital and helped me through it. But after my mother died, everyone abandoned me.

    No one sent flowers or a sympathy card. No one called to see how I was doing or to ask if I needed anything. A cousin sent me a message on Facebook a few weeks later, asking how I was doing. The crazy thing is, I’m always there for everyone else in their time of need.

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