A letter of condolence should be sent promptly after the death announcement. It should be well thought out and appropriate to the relationship with the deceased or their family.
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Letters are written to the individual closest to the deceased; this is usually a spouse, partner, parent or sibling. Some people may write to the family member of their own generation they know best, or indeed to more than one person.
The letter should be always be handwritten and never be typed.
Email should not be used, except in international circumstances.
It is best to opt for classic stationery such as good quality writing paper or a neutral blank greetings card; special condolence cards can seem less thoughtful.
See also: Stationery
Tone and style
The tone should not be too heavy; an eloquent yet direct approach is best.
Make sure that the content of the letter is directed to the bereaved, not the deceased.
The letter is usually personalised by mentioning something relating to the deceased, for example special memories, personal recollections, distinguishing characteristics or great achievements.
Gushing emotion or false promises of help and support will seem insincere.
Conventional phrases such as ‘ I was so sorry to hear/read about your father...’ are perfectly acceptable. It is traditional to end the letter by saying no reply is necessary, although the recipient may well do so.
See Forms of Address
A response to letters of sympathy and condolence is not necessary and should never be expected. However, it is a thoughtful gesture if the time is taken to reply.
It also provides the chance for the bereaved to thank any individuals who have been especially supportive or helpful.
If the person is old or infirm and has received a great many letters then a printed card, with the sender’s name and address on the top in the style of a correspondence card, may be sent. The card is signed and, if desired, a short personal message added by hand.
The printed wording usually quite simple, for example:
Mrs John Debrett would like to thank you very much for your kind letter on the death of her husband.
She has been unable to reply personally to the many hundreds of letters she received but hopes that all those who took the trouble to write will understand and be assured that their letters were much appreciated at this difficult time and will be treasured in the months to come.