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​Condolences in the Days of COVID-19

Woman writing a letter by hand

Getty Images/Keith Brofsky

Someone you know has died due to COVID-19. Here’s the script on writing your gentle condolences.

Among the most difficult letters (or emails) to write are those expressing condolences over the death of a loved one. Given the current pandemic, more and more of us will have to do this. Katherine Rosman wrote a very fine guide to “Writing Condolences With a Gentle Touch” in The New York Times’ Arena section (April 12).

Here are some of her thoughts with a few of my own added: 

Don’t send a card—write a note instead. Greeting cards are stock sentiments allowing you to avoid having to speak from the heart. I know it’s more difficult, but take the time to write something that is personal. Ideally this should be a handwritten note, but if email seems more your style, go with that. 

Be serious, not casual. No matter how well you know the person to whom you are writing, open your note with “Dear” and close it with “Sincerely” or something similar. If a religious close such as “Blessings” or “Om Shanti” is called for, do that, but don’t offer a sentiment that you do not personally ascribe to. For example, no matter how devoted to Jesus a friend of mine may be, I would not end my note to them with “Yours in Christ.” 

Be real. While it is common to use euphemisms when speaking of death, this is not the right time for them. Avoid such phrases as “passed away,” “shed the body,” “gone to their just reward or eternal rest,” or “passed over.” They died. The person to whom you are writing knows their loved one died and will appreciate that you didn’t avoid the fact.

Be honest. If there was discord between you and the deceased or between you and the person to whom you are writing, you may reference it obliquely, but only in the context of making a larger more positive point.

Use the deceased’s name. When writing to a spouse or a child whose partner or parent has died, first reference the relationship and then honor the name: “Dear Martha, I am so sorry to learn of your husband’s death. George was a….” 

Share a connection. If you knew the deceased and can share a kind story with survivors about the deceased, do so. Just keep it brief. 

Honor the circumstances. Rosman makes a wonderful point that, because of social distancing, many of our loved ones die alone without the comfort and companionship of family and friends. If this is true regarding the person about whom you are writing, take note of and sympathize with the added suffering and even guilt their family may feel over not being there for their loved one.

Point to the future. Grief can last a very long time; a condolence note does not. If apropriate, end your note with a promise to call or write again in the not too distant future to see how the person is doing. If you write this, don’t forget to follow-up. Don’t make a promise you know you will not fulfill.

 Want more? Read about honoring grief.  

Rabbi Rami Shipiro

Rabbi Rami Shapiro is an award-winning author, essayist, poet, and teacher. In the print version of our magazine, he has an advice column, “Roadside Assistance for the Spiritual Traveler,” addressing reader questions pertaining to religion, spirituality, faith, family, God, social issues, and more. His latest book is Surrendered—The Sacred Art. Rabbi Rami hosts our podcast, “Essential Conversations.”

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