That's a letter that no one wishes to write and no one wishes to receive. A little while ago I was trying to think of the types of letter that everyone will write during their lifetime. Thank you letters, cover letters for jobs and perhaps letters of condolence were high on my list.
Grief, you would think was universal, so therefore writing to show someone that you care *should* come naturally. However, I certainly found it difficult to find and use all the right words. I wanted to give a lot of thought to what I was going to write (as you may have realised someone I knew passed away) and did something I've never done before. I bought a self-help book.
'The Art of Condolence' is a book I saw in the second hand bookshop down the road from me several weeks ago. I ummed and ahhed and left it on the shelf. More recently I returned to see if it was still there. Apart from collections of letters, it was the first book I'd seen that focussed on how to write letters. Very specific letters - a whole chapter is dedicated on what to write on the death of an Aids victim (the book was published in the US in 1991). It is written by two grief counsellors and is much more sensible in its approach than I expected it to be - although some of the sample letters are bizarre. Or they might just be American.
After reading 'The Art of Condolence' and thinking long and hard about what to say, I came up with a summary of all my research and thoughts, so when writing a letter of condolence, here's my top few tips:
- Acknowledge the loss. The simple structure of 'I was really sorry to hear ...' gets the elephant out of the way. It's also honest, you can follow it up with 'I shall miss them' or if you didn't know them 'from everything you've said it sounds like they'll be missed very much.
- I think writing about a special time or conversation you had with the deceased is a good thing to move on to. After my Grandma died, for ages I couldn't remember anything at all as to how she was like. Putting a little sentence down of they said this and I always remembered it, is special.
- A practical offer, a gift or something specific is good. It's no good saying 'Ring if you need anything' as, well if you're like me, you'll think I can manage fine. I would be much more likely to do something about shall we meet in six weeks. A treat, like gift vouchers, can buoy people up.
That's it. There's a lot more detailed advice available and there are lots of examples of how to do it online, but I think the important thing is that it comes from your heart.