How to Write an Effective Condolence Letter


You’re a business owner. You have just found out that one of your regular customers has suffered a death in the family.  You know that you need to send a message.  But what will you say?  And how will you make sure that you say the right things? This often ignored subject is, in fact, an important one for anyone in business.

A letter of condolence is appropriate to send when someone you work with or do business with suffers a tragedy in his or her family or circle of close friends.  Such messages should show both your own feelings of sorrow and your respect for the feelings of the reader.  They do not need to be long, just long enough to sound both sincere and complete..  Also, hand writing this type of message is very important because the personal touch is so very crucial with these sensitive messages.

The thought of writing messages to bereaved people seems to frighten many people.  People seem to be afraid that what we say will not be received well, or that it won’t do any good. Would-be writers are sometimes so afraid to write such messages, that when they do, their fears actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  They end up saying too much, or something inappropriate—just as they had feared.

The most important principle in condolences.  You can feel more confident about expressing condolences by remembering this principle:  People who are grieving need to know two things about you—above all others.  They need to know that you are there and that you care.  Use this sentence as a test for whatever you decide to say.  If your message fulfills these two needs—assuming that it does so appropriately—you will have accomplished your purpose.

Here are a few further guidelines for the writing of these difficult messages:
• Make sure to keep references to the past brief.  This is the one mistake in length that is often made.
• Use tact in everything you say.  Don’t go into detail about how tough the future is going to be.  Yet, don’t become gushy, either.
• Be sufficiently direct.  Don’t tiptoe around the fact that the tragedy has happened.
• Don’t make vague promises.  Don’t say, “If there is anything I can do, just let me know.”  The bereaved person isn’t likely to act on such a general and vague commitment.  Thus it becomes a hollow promise.  If you offer help, make that offer as specific as possible.

Dear Phil,
I have been saddened deeply to hear about the death of your wife.  Jane’s positive attitude and high energy level impressed all whoever had any interaction with her.
Although whatever I can say will be woefully inadequate, I want you to know that everyone here at Jones Mortgage sends their most profound sympathy. 
In the weeks and months to come, you might need some extra support in your department.  Let me know if I can send an extra copy person to help carry the load.
You are in our thoughts.

Jeanne LaChance

Notice that this letter does the following:
1. It starts out with a direct reference to the tragedy.
2. It mentions characteristics of the lost loved one, but not in great detail.
3. It then makes a brief but sincere expression of sympathy.
4. It offers help, but does so specifically offering to “send an extra copy person” to the bereaved person’s department.
5. It ends with a brief reassuring statement.

In some cases, the issue will be an injury, a financial reversal, or other tragedy.  These principles, adapted to the specific situation, should be adequate.  Remember that a tragedy is a tragedy; only the sufferer fully understands the intensity.  You can react sincerely with as much empathy as possible.

Of course, we hope you never have to use these principles.  However, when they are needed they can be quite helpful both to you and to the bereaved.

Lowell Lamberton is professor of business at Central Oregon Community College.  For more information, feel free to contact Professor Lamberton at 541-383-7714 or by e-mail at


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