In times of sorrow, being present to offer comfort and support often matters more than the right words or actions

Photo of large crowd with balloons

The Day of Remembrance at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is an annual event honoring the lives of our patients who have passed away during the past five years and offers comfort and support to their families. At the end of the day, balloons are released in memory of those patients.

The Day of Remembrance at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is an annual event honoring the lives of our patients who have died during the past five years and offers comfort and support to their families.

St. Jude staff members visit with these families during an afternoon reception that includes special memory boards to honor the children’s legacies. Parents take much pride in creating these memory boards and setting them up for display. Each year, parents say the most meaningful and healing part of the weekend is when staff members come to see the memory boards. Many of these employees may not have known the patients, but just being there can make all the difference.

Expressing condolences can be difficult and uncomfortable. If done in a thoughtful and heartfelt manner, these simple acknowledgements can make a lasting and treasured impact on those who are grieving. From writing a condolence letter to finding what to say at a memorial service, your thoughtfulness and sincerity will long be remembered.

“It’s so important for staff to be there," said a parent of a St. Jude patient who died. "If you can make it, just step into that fear.”

If you have a friend, neighbor or relative who’s suffered loss, I share some suggestions in answering some of the questions I’ve heard often in my personal and professional experiences.

Here’s more about what to say, what to do and how to write a meaningful condolence letter.

What do I say?
You don’t have to find the perfect thing to say or do to fix someone’s grief. We can comfort, but we can’t make their grief go away. You can acknowledge you don’t know what to say or say nothing at all by offering a heartfelt hug instead. You can share a memory or, if you didn’t know the deceased, you can ask the grieving person to tell you about them.

Additional suggestions:

  • I am sorry that this has happened.
  • I am here to help in any way I can.
  • You have my sympathy and support.
  • I don’t know why this happened.
  • I am sorry for your loss.
  • You are in my prayers (only if you mean it).

What should I do?
Be there for the long run. In addition to showing up for the funeral or calling in the early moments, show you care over time, even if you need to create a calendar reminder to send a card, a text or to invite that person out to lunch.

Additional suggestions:

  • Say the deceased’s name.
  • Don’t change the subject.
  • Remember important dates.
  • Share memories.
  • Don’t avoid.
  • Check in frequently—text, cards, phone calls.

What is the best approach to writing a condolence letter?
When writing a condolence letter, it’s important to craft a message that is heartfelt and avoids clichés. Start by picking a simple card—one that leaves space for you to write or a blank card that you can write your own note in. Handwrite the letter. A handwritten note is so much more meaningful than an email, a text message or a social media post. Be sure to use your own voice. Be authentic and real.

Seven components of a thoughtful condolence letter:

  • Acknowledge the death and refer to the deceased by name.
  • Express your sympathy.
  • Describe special qualities or traits of the deceased.
  • Share a favorite memory.
  • Remind the bereaved of his or her personal strengths and/or special qualities.
  • Offer to help in a specific way.
  • End with a thoughtful hope, wish or sympathy expression.

You may not always get a response when you reach out to someone. It doesn’t mean your message is unimportant. A person may not have the emotional strength or time to respond right away, but they will know you were thinking of them.

About the author

Lisa Clark, PhD, is a quality of life psychologist and coordinator of grief support at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
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