Ask Miriam | What to Say in Sympathy Cards?

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Dear Miriam,

I work for a large but very friendly company, where I don’t know most of the employees outside my department. We do have an all-company listserv and, in this time of pandemic, one section of the company emails has been to share news of deaths in employees’ families. I want to send them sympathy cards, but I’m not sure what they should say. What’s the appropriate message for people I’m connected to but don’t know who have lost loved ones?


Condolence Cards

Dear Condolence,

The thing about sympathy cards is that no one knows what to say in them. Card companies write their own generic messages inside mass-produced sympathy cards so that card givers can sign their names and feel like they did the thing without having to think too hard about how actually to put into words their feelings about death. 

Since you don’t know the people you’re writing to or about, just signing your name likely feels completely insufficient, whereas writing about someone’s life you didn’t experience may feel disingenuous. Even so, you’re embarking on a thoughtful and worthwhile project. 

The goal of such a card is to bring comfort and to make someone in mourning feel less alone, so say things that are comforting and connecting. Phrases like, “thinking of you” and “sending you strength” create a good baseline. But because you don’t have a personal relationship, you also need to establish that somehow. Consider, “I’m glad to know we work together,” or, “I hope we can meet in happier times once we return to work.” Avoid phrases that reference the pandemic, mention any particular religious belief or offer false hope for things being better soon. 

Whoever receives the card will remember the gesture more than the particulars, so if one doesn’t come out perfectly, don’t sweat it. Use a note card that’s small and generic enough that you won’t feel compelled to fill an excessive amount of white space with words and that can’t offend through what’s pictured on it. Even though handwritten notes are the standard for condolence cards, consider typing up a template for yourself that you can reference so you don’t have to reinvent your language every time. 

Finally, give yourself a break every few cards. Even though you’re not personally impacted by the deaths you’re commemorating, you, like all of us, are living through strange and difficult times. A sustained amount of focus each day on other people’s deaths could start to take a toll on you even as you try to bring comfort to others, so set a card limit for each day, or plan a life-affirming activity for yourself after your card-writing each day. You’re doing a great mitzvah by sending these cards.

Be well,



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