As floral and gift designers, we help people celebrate life events big and small. So often we talk about the joyous occasions: From the birth of a newborn baby to celebrating a new home.
But the truth is, we’re also entrusted to help people express themselves during those difficult times:
- the loss of a parent
- the passing of a friend
- saying goodbye to a beloved pet
Those moments when there is a great desire to reach out and make a thoughtful gesture to someone and when the right words seemingly disappear.
In times of mourning and sadness, a personal gesture to friends, family and even acquaintances can be most comforting. But how do you know what to say when someone passes away?
The most important thing to remember is the purpose of your expression. Provide support and kindness to those who are experiencing a profound pain. As Maya Angelou said, “try to be a rainbow in someone else’s cloud.”
Know that you alone will not be able to heal their pain. And you must not let the worry of figuring out the perfect thing to say stop you from making a connection or, worse, keep you silent. Even though it is difficult to know exactly what to say to someone who is feeling alone and grieving, your condolences will likely mean more than you know both now and in the future.
We know reaching out with condolences isn’t easy. And knowing where and how to start is often the hardest part. We’ve compiled these suggestions to help you get started with expressing your own heartfelt sympathy to someone who is in mourning. Use these tips as is or as a guideline to craft your own message.
What to say in a sympathy card
Etiquette purists may disagree, but we believe there’s no right or wrong way to write your condolences as long as it’s genuine and sincere.
Choose a nice piece of writing paper or a beautiful card and, whenever possible, handwrite your note. These small details will let the recipient know you spent time thinking about them and help to convey the warm and caring tone of your message, no matter how brief.
We find it’s easiest to begin with “I’m so sorry for your loss”. Depending upon your relationship to the deceased or the surviving families, it may be helpful to slightly tailor your message to frame the context for the relationship, especially if you’re not close to the family.
For example, if a coworker has passed away, you may say, “Your husband was a wonderful person and colleague. I learned so much from him in the last 10 years and he will be missed.”
For a friend’s Mother, you may write, “I know your Mom was an inspiring person through all of the amazing stories you shared with me in college. I know you will miss her deeply.”
For a pet: “I know ___________ brought you so much love & joy. I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Other words you may want to include: My thoughts are with you – We are thinking of You – Our hearts go out to you and your family.
Whether you opt for a pre-printed greeting card, or draft one entirely from scratch, close your message “With sympathy,” or “With love,” followed by your signature.
A note about what not to say….
There are also a few things you should avoid including in your sympathy message. These include, expressing shock at how horrible the loss is, reminding the surviving loved ones how terrible it is that someone was taken so soon, proclaiming to know exactly how they feel, making predictions about when or if they will feel better, offering biblical passages and other religious comfort to someone who isn’t religious, or trying to find an explanation or cause for death. Trust us, they are already struggling with these things and the last thing they need is an exclamation point on it in the form of a reminder.
When in doubt, keep it simple and speak from your compassionate heart.
Offer to Help
Depending upon your relationship to the surviving family and your proximity, you may wish to offer help.
You can add your offer to help in your sympathy card and/or follow up by phone. Some may find it difficult to accept help and so you might offer them some specific suggestions. For example, you may wish to write “If there is anything we can do during this difficult time, such as taking over your school carpool duties next week or stopping by with a ready to bake vegetarian meal, please do let us know.”
Being specific with your offer, makes it easier to accept and easier to follow through. Don’t worry about your offer to help being too small. When someone is grieving, they have many things to take care of, including themselves, and ordinary tasks, such as mowing the lawn, can seem overwhelming.
Before sending flowers, find out of there is a notice that no flowers are sent. In the past, these notices were printed in the newspaper. Today, you may need to find out from a close family member or contact the funeral home to understand the survivor’s wishes. This may even be communicated on social media or other online guest book.
Typically the family, or groups of people (such as coworkers), may send large arrangements to the funeral home. The family and the funeral director will decide which arrangements are brought to the church if having a church service. Do not bring flowers with you unless they are already in a vase. If you bring them with you, seek out and give them directly to the funeral director. It is important that your card be attached and ideally list a description of the arrangement on the back of the card. Trained florists will do this for you and it helps the family to acknowledge your gift in a thank you note as sometimes the cards will be separated from the flowers, especially when it is time to dispose of them which may be long before the thank you note is written.
Smaller arrangements and plants may also be sent to the home a few days after the services along with a short note. Even if several weeks have passed, it is still fine to send something to the home. It may be a welcome and comforting gift once the initial days of misery have settled down a bit. Don’t worry about trying to send flowers to the home before the services. Often times the family is out and about making arrangements and it is difficult to find an appropriate delivery time.
Giving a Gift
While flowers are the most traditional way to acknowledge sympathy, gifts may also be sent to express your condolences. Most commonly, we find gifts being sent to someone close, such as a friend or co-worker, who is grieving regardless of whether or not the giver personally knows the deceased.
Gifts for the grieving typically include thoughtful items for self-care and relaxation, such as candles, soaps and journals. During times of mourning, a thoughtful gift is a way to let someone know you are thinking of them and offer your support for their healing process. Gifts are not sent to the funeral home or to the church. They are either given directly to the recipient or sent by post to their home, along with a sympathy card. Like flowers, a gift can be sent days, even weeks, after the burial.1