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Fast Fact and Concept #22: Writing a Condolence Letter

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Title: Fast Fact and Concept #22: Writing a Condolence Letter

Author(s): Menkin, E; Wolfson, R; Weissman, D

This Fast Fact outlines the steps in writing a condolence letter. Appropriate for discussion on work rounds or as a handout for a bereavement conference.


One of the most meaningful acts of kindness you can do for a mourner is to write a letter of condolence. The words of sympathy and memory are comforting to the bereaved. More importantly, mourners are very appreciative that you took the time to sit and compose a personal message to them or share a memory of the deceased. For professionals who work with dying patients, writing a condolence letter is an opportunity to reflect on both the pain and the rewards of our work. When we can appreciate the privilege it is to bear witness to the courage, kindness, caring and dignity that our patients and their families exhibit under duress, it gives us strength to continue this work.

A good condolence letter has two goals: to offer tribute to the deceased and to be a source of comfort to the survivors. The best letters are like conversations, as if you were talking during a visit. Most often, they are written to the bereaved person to whom you feel closest, although it could be a general letter to the family. It should be written and sent promptly, generally within two weeks after the death. Use any standard stationery and write it by hand. Here are some specific guidelines for writing a good condolence letter:

Acknowledge the loss and name the deceased. This sets the purpose and tone of the letter. Let the bereaved know how you learned of the death and how you felt upon hearing the news. Using the name of the deceased is a tribute that comforts most mourners.

Express your sympathy. Use words of sympathy that remind the bereaved that they are not alone in their feelings of sadness and loss.

Note special qualities of the deceased. Acknowledge those characteristics that you cherished most about the person who has died. These might be qualities of personality (courage, sensitivity), or attributes (funny, affable), or ways the person related to the world (religious, devoted to community welfare).

Recall a memory about the deceased. Talk about how the deceased touched your life. Try to capture what it was about the person in the story that you admired, appreciated or respected. You may use humor-the funny stories are often the most appreciated by the bereaved.

Remind the bereaved of their personal strengths. Bereavement often brings with it self-doubt and anxiety about one's own personal worth. By reminding the bereaved of the qualities they possess that will help them through this period, you reinforce their ability to cope. Qualities to mention might be patience, optimism, religious belief, resilience, and competence. If you can recall something the deceased used to say about the mourner in this regard, you will really be giving the bereaved a gift. An example: "I was (impressed, inspired, awed, strengthened) by the devotion you and your family evidenced during the period of Mort's illness. Your presence (concern, care, attentiveness) was only one indication of your love for him."

Offer help, but be specific. "If there is anything I can do, please call" actually puts a burden on those in grief who may be totally at a loss about what needs to be done. A definite offer of help is more appreciated. Whatever you offer, do it - don't make an offer you cannot fulfill.

End with a word or phrase of sympathy. Somehow, "sincerely," "love," or "fondly," don't quite make it. Try one of these: "You are in my thoughts and prayers." or "My fond respects to you and yours."

If you don't have enough to say for a formal condolence letter, you may prefer to send a sympathy note. These are shorter communications that can be written on personal stationery or added to a commercially available card. As with a condolence letter, the major goal is to offer a tribute to the deceased and to offer comfort to the bereaved:

Reference:

Wolfson, R. A Time to Mourn, A Time to Comfort pp 223-226 (Woodstock, Vt.: Jewish Lights Publishing, 1993) ã The Federation of Jewish Men's Clubs. Order by mail from Jewish Lights Publishing, P.O. Box 237, Woodstock, VT 05091; or call 800-962-4544. $16.95 + $3.50 s/h.

Fast Facts and Concepts was originally developed as an end-of-life teaching tool by Eric Warm, MD, U. Cincinnati, Department of Medicine. See: Warm, E. Improving EOL care--internal medicine curriculum project. J Pall Med 1999; 2: 339-340.

Contact: David E. Weissman, MD, FACP Editor, Journal of Palliative Medicine Palliative Care Program, Director Medical College of Wisconsin (P) 414-805-4607(F) 414-805-4608

Copyright Notice: Users are free to download and distribute Fast Facts for educational purposes only. Citation for referencing: Weissman, D. Fast Fact and Concepts #22: Writing a Condolence Letter. September, 2000. End-of-Life Physician Education Resource Center www.eperc.mcw.edu.

Disclaimer: Fast Facts provide educational information, this information is not medical advice. Health care providers should exercise their own independent clinical judgment. Some Fast Fact information cites the use of a product in dosage, for an indication, or in a manner other than that recommended in the product labeling. Accordingly, the official prescribing information should be consulted before any such product is used.

Creation Date: 8/2000

Format: Handouts

Purpose: Instructional Aid

Audience(s)
Training: Fellows, 1st/2nd Year Medical Students, 3rd/4th Year Medical Students, PGY1 (Interns), PGY2-6, Physicians in Practice
Specialty: Anesthesiology, Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, General Internal Medicine, Geriatrics, Hematology/Oncology, Neurology, OB/GYN, Ophthalmology, Pulmonary/Critical Care, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Surgery
Non-Physician: Clergy/Chaplains, General Public, Graduate Students, Lawyers, Patients/Families, Nurses, Social Workers

ACGME Competencies: Interpersonal and Communication Skills, Patient Care

Keyword(s): Caring for families, Grief/bereavement, Post-death family care


The Fast Facts series is distributed for educational use only and does not constitute medical advice. For the most current version of Fast Facts visit the EPERC web site at www.eperc.mcw.edu. This mirror version is provided subject to copyright restrictions for educational use within the Inter-Instutional Collaborating Network on End-of-Life Care (IICN).