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Illness & Death
Illness & Death

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"I have used several of your publications for Stephen Ministry continuing education. I am finding all of them very practical and they are good reminders of the nuts and bolts of simply listening and not saying too much and when you say anything, making sure it’s helpful. Thanks again for this wonderful resource."

Rev. Gatlin, Associate Pastor, Covenant United Methodist Church, Dothan, AL

Sympathy Notes
Belated Sympathy Notes
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How late is too late when it comes to sympathy notes? As one widow shares, “It's never too late. It's not as if we finish grieving and ‘forget’ that our loved one died.”

Here are some tips on belated condolence notes:

A loved one’s death is always in the hearts and minds of the bereaved.

  • Begin your sympathy message with something like: “I just wanted you to know that Susan is often in my thoughts and I remember her with love, as I know you do."
  • Whether you just learned of a death or procrastinated for months, don’t be afraid to reach out.
  • The bereaved will be grieving for a long time and your thoughtfulness and care will help in the healing process.
Sympathy Notes - How to Close
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The act of writing a sympathy note is just like any other task; it’s hard to begin. But once you have found a rhythm and finished your writing, how do you close? Check out our tip:

Most writers end condolence notes with a caring message, for example:

  • “I’ll keep you in my thoughts and prayers.” It’s a simple close that will not offend.
  • Or, you can reiterate your condolence message with, “My deepest condolences on your loss.”

One I like to use:

“May memories of the life you shared bring you comfort in the days and months ahead.”

Sympathy Letters - How to Begin
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Have you sent your condolences or are you still procrastinating, unsure of where to begin? An old Chinese proverb states that “A long journey begins with but a single step.” So, if you haven’t written a sympathy note because you can’t figure out where to begin, follow our tip.

Tell them how you feel.

  • Are you sad to hear the news?
  • Did the death affect you deeply?
  • Have you been reflecting on special memories of the deceased?

The following introductory sentence often expresses how I feel:

“It is with a heavy heart that I send my deepest condolences on the death of your ****. “

Please share yours!

Instant Sympathy via Facebook
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News travels fast through social media so it’s no surprise to hear about a death through Facebook. Blasts of news are so frequent that we’ve become adept at responding in similar fashion. Why send a sympathy note when with a few clicks of the keys, you’ve said your peace? With seemingly ease, people react immediately to sad news.

While I’m not a fan of posting condolence messages on Facebook, I’ve become aware of just how comforting the immediacy of support can be.

I recently attended the funeral service for a 79-year-old member of my congregation. During the service, one of the bereaved sons shared a few of the many tributes written on his father’s Facebook page. His father was a retired music teacher and his former students were very loyal and kept in touch. Upon hearing of his death, there were dozens of messages that appeared on his Facebook wall. One shared his deep sadness upon hearing the news and then continued by detailing how his beloved music teacher made a huge difference in his life. He shared stories that the family had never heard and this brought them a greater sense of their father’s legacy as well as his talents. Other students shared stories that depicted their dad’s idiosyncrasies and this made them laugh. Laughter in the face of so many tears brought solace.

When my mom died, I loved the stack of condolence letters I received and on sad days, I took them to my favorite chair and re-read them. It’s true, I had to wait months to receive some of them but they became treasured reminders of my mom’s legacy; and they brought much comfort.

Facebook seems to be doing the same thing and more in a quicker and more efficient format. For example, years ago when a cousin died, it took lots of work to hunt down old photos, make copies, and send an album to her husband. Now, it’s easy to scan old photos and post new ones on Facebook, some the bereaved may never have seen. And even if they have seen them, they have all the memories in one online place.

Will I stop mailing written condolences? Probably not. But I will be more flexible in sharing stories and photos on Facebook. If I see the bereaved is “liking” what they see, I may add some memories to the mix. After all, the whole point is comforting the bereaved.

Used with permission

Alternatives to sympathy notes
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Do you need to write a condolence note? "It's not always necessary," says Robbie Miller Kaplan, condolence expert.

One of the questions I’m most frequently asked is, “How do I write a sympathy note?” Maybe the question we should be asking is "Do we need to write a note of sympathy?"

For example, the father of a dear friend died. My friend was out of town when I heard the news and I reached her by phone. We talked for half an hour and she shared that after a long illness, she’d made peace with her dad’s death. I called again and we spoke after the funeral. I invited her and her husband for dinner the night they returned home and she accepted. After speaking with her at length and extending my sympathy over a home-cooked meal, I felt it unnecessary to write a personal note of sympathy, and I didn’t.

A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of a friend’s sister. I had an opportunity to express my condolences after the service. My friend hugged me so tight and I knew that the physical support was a comfort. I attended a Shiva the following night; a Shiva is a Jewish ritual of mourning where family members and friends congregate to comfort the mourners. I then sent a donation in memory of my friend’s sister to the organization she’d designated. After all these expressions of sympathy I felt a sympathy letter was not warranted.

I don’t use a blanket approach when it comes to sympathy. Each loss is unique and I make a personal decision on how best to support my friends and loved ones. While I believe it’s always appropriate to write a note of sympathy, there are times when our actions are an expression of our condolences and writing a note isn’t necessary.

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