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The Heart of the Matter (Or How to Write a Condolence Note)

What if you knew you could write a condolence message that would actually be helpful to a grieving friend? No more sweaty palms, self-doubt or putting your foot in your mouth? What would that mean to you? To your griever?

It'd mean you can rest assured that your grieving friend feels a bit stronger because they’ve seen firsthand that you can stand by them in their grief. What a gift—to you both!

EVERYONE can write a helpful, meaningful condolence. You just need to know a few pointers no one’s ever told you! So let’s get started!

Heart first. First thing to realize is that if you focus on the craft of writing before accessing your own heart and vulnerability, you might as well skip the condolence message for all the good it will do.

Why? Because in the 15 years I spent talking to grievers as background for my book, Condolences Pocket Guide, not one of them ever criticized a friend’s writing style or grammar. Instead, they expressed their gratitude for those who sent them messages from the heart.

In fact, when I was grieving, the notes that warmed my heart the most were those that didcontain mistakes. I can’t help it, I’m a writer, I’m going to notice the mistakes. But those very mistakes endeared me to my friends because I knew they’d dug deep into their heart to overcome their concerns and they wrote me anyway.

Step 1: So, let’s start with the heart.

  • Put your hand on your heart, breathe down into your whole body and notice how you feel. Afraid? Impatient? Nervous?

  • Just notice. No need to change anything that you see—your feelings are normal—to notice with generous curiosity will shift you out of your head and into your heart.

Step 2: Now that you’re in your heart, a writing tip.

  • Speak only about yourself. Speaking about the griever comes from your head. Speaking from your heart can only be about your feelings. So put your hand on your heart and listen for I-messages. (Yes, this is a writing tip.) I don’t know what to say, I can’t imagine how you must feel, I’m so sorry…

Step 3: Another writing tip—practice then review.

  • Practice out loud. If you’re stuck, say your message out loud. Imagine your friend is right in front of you. Something will come out of your mouth that sounds good. You can record yourself with a voice memo or voice text to yourself. Then write it.

Step 4: Extra tips from a writer.

  • Stay with it long enough to succeed—but not too long. The main difference between me and folks who think they can’t write is that I’m used to the fact that I’m going to have to go through the tedious, doubt-inducing re-writing process on everything. For example, I wrote the previous sentence seven different ways before I settled on what you see here. Do the math. I’ve got hours into this blog already and I’m far from done. Stick with your condolence note way past the point you’d usually give up, and you’ll like your writing. Forget perfection. Go for good enough.

  • When you feel stupid about writing. Please, please, feel stupid and write something anyway. Decide whose feelings you want to protect. Yours, but risk hurting your grieving friend by your silence? Or your grieving friend’s, who'd quickly trade their broken heart and shattered soul for your feelings of insecurity? Your friend needs you.

  • Borrow shamelessly from others. If you find a message in a pre-printed card that you like, take the message and adjust it to how you would say it. I wasn’t born making a living as a writer. I take ideas from everything I read. So rip off some of the suggested condolences in my book, Condolences Pocket Guide, or on my web site, That’s what I put them there for, to give you ideas.

  • Remember your goal. You’re trying to let your grieving friend know that you care about them, you're not trying to pass a writing test.

Ok, this blog is good enough, so I’m sending it out now!


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Did I mention I have a book?

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