Top 10 things not to say in a condolence letter

I’ve written before about what to say when you’re writing a condolence for a Guest Book – it can be very hard to find the right words to express your sympathy. But maybe even harder is knowing what not to say. I think that’s often what stymies us when we’re struggling for the best thing to say – we’re so worried we’ll say the wrong thing and upset someone we care about that we don’t say anything at all.

Never fear! Legacy.com is here to help with some basic guidelines. If you keep these in mind when you write, chances are good that your condolence will do exactly what it’s supposed to do: offer comfort in a difficult time.

1. Don’t offer comparisons. Every loss is different, and it might feel upsetting or offensive if you say, “I know how you feel – my grandma died last year” or, worse yet, “I still can’t get over my dog’s death, so I can guess how sad you must be.” Not that your own loss isn’t devastating, but the comparison can feel like you’re trying to make it about you or even one-up the bereaved. Instead, you might say something like, “I know how difficult it can be to lose a loved one, and my heart goes out to you.”

2. Don’t express relief. Even after a long illness, it’s not very tactful to say “You must be relieved that her ordeal is finally over” or “This is a blessing in disguise.” It may be true, and the bereaved may even be thinking it – but they might feel guilty about those thoughts. Mentioning it in a condolence could strike a nerve. Instead, say something like “Her pain is over and she is at peace.”

3. Don’t share graphic details. Perhaps you were there when the death took place, and you want to share with the family the events you experienced. In theory, this is okay, but it can be taken too far for comfort. If you make sure what you write would be suitable for a child to read, you should be able to avoid upsetting the bereaved.

4. Don’t urge parents to try again. The loss of a child is devastating. Most bereaved parents don’t want to be reminded that they are young and can have more children – this trivializes the child they lost.

5. Don’t look on the bright side. You may want to cheer the bereaved up, but don’t do it by urging them to see the silver lining, whether it’s reduced medical costs or the fact that they can finally take that vacation now. That’s not going to feel like a good thing when they’ve just lost someone they love. A better way to attempt to cheer them up is to offer some happy and loving memories.

6. Don’t overshare. Perhaps you haven’t talked to the bereaved for a while. You may want to share some details of what’s been going on in your life. That’s perfectly okay, but take care with what news you discuss. A family who has lost a baby may not want to hear about your new arrival just now. Someone who is grieving may not take comfort in a long description of all the fun you had on your recent Caribbean cruise. Keep it brief, and catch up more at a later date.

7. Don’t detail family drama. It may be that the family is going through some contentious times following a death. Sure, this needs to be dealt with, but a condolence note is not the best forum for it. Put the drama aside for the moment in favor of sharing your sympathy and fond memories.

8. Don’t badmouth anybody. A condolence letter just isn’t the place to complain about someone’s behavior or to make a negative comment about someone, whether it’s the deceased or anyone else. A gentle acknowledgement of a quirk can be acceptable – e.g. “George could be cranky before he had his coffee, but that was part of his charm” – but a harsher criticism is just likely to upset the bereaved. This isn’t the best time to vent your frustrations.

9. Don’t discuss the will. It may be that you have questions about the will or about a specific item that the deceased promised to leave to you. This is certainly something you can bring up at the right time, but not immediately following the death and while you’re offering your condolences. Hold off for a bit before asking these questions.

10. Don’t share private information. There may be some facts and other information that you know the deceased never revealed to his or her family. Whether it’s membership in an anonymous organization like AA or NA, or an illegitimate child put up for adoption years ago, a condolence note is not the place to reveal long-kept secrets.

One final note on how to write a great condolence letter: DO share happy memories and offer sympathy. These are the two most important components of a loving and comforting condolence message. Tell a favorite story or two about the deceased. Remember his or her personality. Express your sympathy. Offer any help you might be able to give. If you concentrate on these topics instead of the “don’ts” above, your condolence message will do exactly what it’s intended to do – it’ll make a grieving family feel just a little bit better.

To read more tips on signing an obituary Guest Book, see our collection of guides – How to write a condolence letter.

About Linnea

I joined Legacy.com in 2000 as an obituary writer. In the years since, I've done a little of everything for our Operations team, from content review to customer service to creating web pages for funeral homes to training new employees to my current position, Content Manager. I love this position, because I get to write little bits & longer pieces - whatever's needed at the moment - and I get to proofread a lot, satisfying my inner nitpicker. And I love being on the blog team, because I get to write interesting features for the blog. I love to write! In my spare time, I... can you guess?... write. I'm hoping that one day I can add "published novelist" to my bio. I also enjoy working in my vegetable garden and cooking, baking, canning, making ice cream, and pretty much anything else in the kitchen. I love to read, compete in trivia contests, and attempt to keep up with my Netflix queue.
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