The words are a bridge, forming a connection between the bereaved and the person offering condolence. Sometimes there is a feeling of relief once they are spoken — there, I managed to say something, I did the right thing, I expressed sympathy.
Writing a letter to someone suffering a bereavement is a fuller, more personal response. If you have experienced loss, you will know how significant letters of condolence are.
You might not be able read them with full attention at the time, or to respond in the way you would like to, or indeed at all. But we keep these letters. We read and re-read them when the time is right. They are shared, and treasured. They become part of a person’s living memory.
Sometimes we have the instinct to offer condolences, to write, or to send a card, but for a variety of reasons, we don’t do it straight away. Time moves on, and then we think it’s too late, it will look stupid now, I’ll look ridiculous.
Not so. Time isn’t always experienced in a linear way, particularly in periods of intense emotional pain. Listen to your instinct, and go ahead.
No need to say ‘belated’
If you like, you can apologise for not writing sooner, but pause before you do. The reason for your delay in writing may be valid, but explanations focus on you and your life, which isn’t the idea.
There might be a practical reason for your belated response, such as having heard the news only recently, but that is hardly your fault, and explanations can sound like feeble excuses. Beginning with something like, ‘I must apologise for this belated letter, but I was on holiday in Tenerife/without any wifi connection/not very well/up to my eyes in work stuff’ distracts from the purpose of your letter and gives prominence to circumstances that are irrelevant to the person you are writing to.
You could address the belated issue with something like, ‘I have just heard…’ and go straight on to express your sympathy.
You could say what has prompted you to write at this point. You might begin with something like, ‘I’ve been thinking about…recently’ or ‘You have often been in my thoughts over the past (however long).’
Share a memory or thought or reflection
Say something about the person who has died. This can be as short or as long as you like. Just a line or two about how you think of them and what impact they had on you will be appreciated.
Whatever you say, you are showing that the person’s life mattered, that they are remembered and valued.
Your letter is about a specific bereavement. When you are writing some time later, it might be tempting to take the opportunity to play catch-up. It’s better to resist this idea.
Don’t add news of births, deaths, marriages or other activities in your circle which have occurred in the meantime. If you are about to use the phrase ‘By the way’, stop and think before you continue. By changing the focus, you run the risk of diminishing the effect of your message.
The way you express your sympathy will convey the nature of your feelings and the particular essence of the bereavement. You might be sending a warm appreciation of a long life well lived and peacefully ended. In other circumstances, you may be sympathising with intense grief and pain. Whatever the situation, keep the tone consistent.
If the loss is very painful, don’t try to cheer things up by saying ‘On a lighter note..’ or ‘Moving on..’
If you are writing more in celebration of a person, you don’t have to switch gear and insert a gloomy line or two.
You might know the bereaved person or family pretty well, in which case you will be familiar with their approach to life and their beliefs. If you don’t, it’s probably best not to offer your own interpretation of the meaning of life, death and the universe. There’s a chance that you might cause offence without meaning to.
Even though yours is a ‘belated’ message, the person you are writing to may still be in a heightened state of sensitivity.
Every loss is individual
National disasters such as wars or pandemics bring a huge increase in deaths. It’s important not to lose the individual in the mass of numbers. So if you are writing a condolence letter in such a period, don’t diminish the significance of this loss with any reference to other casualties.
Make it look nice
Sending condolences some time after the event might give an opportunity to think about how you send your message. This could be an occasion for a handwritten note. Don’t worry if your handwriting is rubbish because you never use a pen or pencil – just make sure that it’s clear enough to be read.
It’s nice to write in a card or on paper with a picture or motif that reflects something of the essence of the person who has died – a colour associated with them, perhaps, or a design they would like or which brings them to mind.
It’s never too late
Putting thought and care into the means of expression is a way of honouring the person’s memory.
In the aftermath of the months during which so many of us were unable to perform the rites and rituals which bring bereaved people together, the act of giving and receiving a letter becomes a little ceremony in itself. It’s never too late to acknowledge the importance to us of those we love and those we have lost.