Recently a very good friend hinted that I hadn’t written to her after her parents’ death. Despite the fact that I had sent her a card after each funeral. But she wanted more. Apparently she had wanted me to tell her an amusing story about the parent and elaborate on how wonderful each was. She had wanted me to delve deep into the parent’s character. I am not comfortable writing letters like that. I thought it was enough to send a card in which I added a heartfelt note. What is the proper etiquette for writing a condolence letter?
–G.L., Far Hills, NJ
What to write in a condolence letter is one of the most difficult messages you will write. Go easy on yourself. In a perfect world, you would have written a one-page letter with at least three paragraphs.
Starting by regaling the deceased’s parent for being a memorable person in your life. Using their name along with any adjective that came to mind. Followed by offering your deepest sympathy for their loss.
The third paragraph would consist of an amusing anecdote illuminating one of the parent’s fine qualities. Or a colorful account of a dinner or car ride with the parent while you listened to your friend bantering about this and that.
You could recall an incident about the Thanksgiving when you and your friend’s mother walked into the kitchen to find the family dog gnawing on the turkey and how the two of you conspired to keep it a secret from the rest of the family.
In the end, what you really want to come across is how deeply sorry you are for your friend’s loss, because it is terrible to lose a parent.
The next time you see this good friend, give her a big hug and tell her that you think about her parent with great fondness and let her know that the parent was indeed a wonderful person.
Once the brouhaha from the funeral passes, we often forget that is when the real grieving begins. For many of us, writing such an intimate letter opens a wound of our own not yet healed.
In the years to come, gently bringing up your friend’s parents in conversation from time to time will make up for the fact that you didn’t write condolence letters.
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