Estate Settlement: How to write a condolence letter




Excerpt from Wolfson, R.  A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort

Funeral thank you cards

One of the most meaningful acts of kindness you can do for a mourner is to write a letter of condolence. The words of sympathy and memory are comforting to the bereaved. More importantly, mourners are very appreciative that you took the time to sit and compose a personal message to them or share a memory of the deceased. Mourners often save these letters for years.

Yet, the apparently simple act of writing a condolence letter is a lost art.  Actually, letter-writing itself is a skill in danger of extinction, given the ease of calling on the phone.  Of course, you can purchase commercially available condolence cards and add your own brief message, but a well-crafted, personal letter of condolence is a wonderful gift to a mourner. 

A good condolence letter has two goals: to offer tribute to the deceased and to be a source of comfort to the survivors.  The best letters are like conversations on paper-free-flowing as if you were talking during a visit.  Most often, they are written to the bereaved person to whom you feel closest although it could be a general letter to the family.  It should be written and sent promptly, generally within two weeks after the death.  Use any standard stationery and write it by hand.  Some etiquette experts recommend brevity, although if you have particular stories you wish to tell about the deceased, the letter may be lengthy. 

Here are some specific guidelines for writing a good condolence letter.

  1. Acknowledge the loss and name of the deceased.  This sets the purpose and tone of the letter.  Let the bereaved know how you learned of the death and how you felt upon hearing the news. Using the name of the deceased is a tribute that comforts most mourners.

  2. Express your sympathy.  Let the bereaved know your sadness. Use words of sympathy that share your own sorrow.  This will remind the bereaved they are not alone in their suffering.

  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.  Acknowledge those characteristics that you cherished most about the person who has died. These might be qualities of personality (leadership, sensitivity), or attributes (funny, good at sports), or ways the person related to the world (religious, devoted to community welfare). You might write of the special relationship you noted between the deceased and the bereaved.

  4. Recall a memory about the deceased. Tell a brief story or anecdote that features the deceased. Try to capture what it was about the person in the story that you admired, appreciated or respected. Talk about how the deceased touched your life. Use humor-the funny stories are often the most appreciated by the bereaved.

  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths. Bereavement often brings with it self-doubt and anxiety about one's own personal worth. By reminding the bereaved of the qualities they possess that will help them through this period, you reinforce their ability to cope.  Among these qualities might be patience, optimism, religious belief, resilience, competence, and trust. If you can recall something the deceased used to say about the mourner in this regard, you will really be giving your friend a gift.

  6. Offer help, but be specific.  "If there is anything I can do, please call" actually puts a burden on those in grief who may be totally at a loss about what needs to be done.  A definite offer to help with shopping, the kids, volunteer work, or whatever is more appreciated.  Or offer to contact the mourner after the initial shiva period when the commotion has subsided.  Then, do it-don't make an offer you can't fulfill. 

  7. End with a word of phrase or sympathy.  Somehow, "sincerely," "love," or "fondly," don't quite make it.  Try one of these:

    "You are in my thoughts and prayers."

    "Our love is with you always."

    "We share in your grief and send you our love."

    "My affectionate respects to you and yours."

    Of course, the traditional greeting to mourners is also an excellent close:

    "May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem."

More thoughtful expressions of sentiments

Lets look at an example of a complete condolence letter written around these seven components:

Dear Aunt Sylvia,

  1. Acknowledge the loss and name the deceased.

    I was shocked when Mom called this morning to tell me the news of Uncle Morton's death. I know he was not feeling well, but the sudden heart attack he suffered brought an end to this wonderful man that was too soon.
  2.  Express your sympathy.

    Words really cannot express how sad I feel.  My heart is filled with sympathy on the loss of your beloved husband.  I loved him too.
  3. Note special qualities of the deceased.

    Uncle Mort was such a colorful man. I have never seen a man so dedicated to his work.  He lived for the store.  And was so funny; he loved to kid people, to kibbitz, to talk to the customers.  Devoted to his beautiful family, especially you, he loved being surrounded by his children and grandchildren. I know the source of pride they were to him.
  4. Recall a memory about the deceased.

    It seems like yesterday that I was twelve years old and working during the summer at the market.  I'll never forget how Uncle Mort loved to work the aisles.  He would get three guys, including me, and we'd stack cases of something on special up to the ceiling.  It took hours.  Then, when we'd be all done, he'd look at the display and say, "Nope. Let's put it over here!."  and we'd have to take it down and start all over again.  But he wanted it to be just right.  He'd be all business, but when we were done, he'd take me across the street for lunch.
  5. Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths.

    I know how much you will miss Uncle Mort.  We all will.  But I know you will remember the many blessings of the beautiful years you shared together.  He loved you so and you were always a a source of strength to him.  I remember his tremendous devotion to you during your illness.  The strength and willingness to live you demonstrated then will help you get through the days and months ahead.
  6. Offer help, but be specific.

    You know that Susie, the kids and I offer our sympathy and love.  We hope to be in Omaha soon and we look forward to being with you.
  7. End with a word of phrase of sympathy.

    Our prayers and thoughts are with you.  May God grand you comfort among all the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.


If you don't have time for a formal condolence letter, you may prefer to send a sympathy note.  These are shorter communications that can be written on personal stationery or added to a commercially available card.

As with the condolence letter, the major goal is to offer a tribute to the deceased and to offer comfort to the bereaved:

Dear Moshe,

  1. Acknowledge the loss and name the deceased.

    Our family was deeply saddened today when we learned from Lois that you had lost your mother, Ruth Zahava.
  2. Express your sympathy.

    We are thinking of you and send our heartfelt sympathy.
  3. Note special qualities of the deceased and/or bereaved.

    We know that Ruth was a tremendous influence on your interest in drama and the arts, as was your late father.  Deep in their hearts, they were proud of everything  you have achieved.
  4. End with a word or phrase of sympathy.

    With affection and deep sympathy, we pray that God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

    Susie and Ronnie

Excerpt from Wolfson, R.  A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort (Woodstock, VT; Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993) © The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs.  $16.95 + $3.50 s/h. Order by mail or call 800-962-4544.  Permission granted by Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091.