5 Things You Should Never Put in a Sympathy Card, Etiquette Experts Say
These are not the condolences to send if you want to show you care.
It's hard to find the right words to say to someone in terrible circumstances—including when there's been a death in their family or close circle of friends. In order to show that we care, many of us choose to send our condolences in a sympathy card rather than having a direct conversation. But writing about bereavement is its own kind of struggle, leaving many of us worrying over what we should and shouldn't say. To help relieve some of the stress, we talked to etiquette experts to gather insight. Read on to discover five things you should never put in a sympathy card.
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"I know exactly how you feel."
Whether it's a mother, father, brother, sister, or other family member, most of us have lost someone at some point in our lives. But it's also important to remember that "everyone's relatives, relationships, and feelings of loss are unique," as Arlene B. Englander, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist who has experience working with grief, reminds.
"Don't presume to know 'exactly' what anyone is feeling," she says.
Janae Kim, LMFT, a Texas-based psychotherapist specializing in trauma and anxiety, also warns against making our experiences seem the same as anyone else's, especially when it comes to the death of a different person.
"This message can minimize the person's experience of loss," Kim explains. "If these words are included, emphasis on how everyone's grief is unique should follow."
"At least they lived a full life."
The death of someone younger is often a sudden shock. But that doesn't mean it's necessarily easier to face the passing of an older friend or family member.
"When you lose someone you care about it is always too soon," says Sally Collins, an etiquette expert in the grief space and founder of Sympathy Message Ideas. "It doesn't matter if they've lived to 110 and had the most incredible life, you will still mourn and grieve their loss."
As a result, messages along the lines of "at least they lived a full life" can also come across as dismissive of the other person's feelings of grief, according to Collins.
"It's like you're saying because they have lived a good and long life you shouldn't be so upset or sad about their passing," she says.
"Everything happens for a reason."
Another "surefire way to invalidate a grieving person's painful experience" is to include something like this in your sympathy card, according to Kim.
"It is akin to saying, 'Since everything happens for a reason, you shouldn't be sad,'" she explains. "This type of message should be avoided in the card at all costs."
Englander also warns that alluding to "higher plans" can sound preachy and doesn't do anything to help in the moment.
"Most often, newly grieving people are caught up in what feels like a senseless loss they cannot understand," she says. "Meet them where they're at. Listen to their pain and let them know you can only imagine how badly they feel and wish there was more you can do."
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"They're in a better place now."
Some people assume that sharing their idea of an afterlife is comforting to those who are grieving. But as Collins explains, "no one who has lost a loved one is going to think they are in a better place because the place they want them is to be with friends and family."
Including a message like this can end up upsetting the other person even more and "appear thoughtless and unsympathetic," according to Collins.
You should, for the most part, steer clear of religious references like this at all, adds Carolina Estevez, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Infinite Recovery in Austin, Texas.
"Although many people find comfort in faith during difficult times, it is important to be respectful of different beliefs and traditions," she says. "Therefore, avoid writing religious messages on sympathy cards unless you are sure that the sentiment would be appreciated by the receiver."
"I'm sorry for your loss."
One of the most common phrases people put in a sympathy card is "I'm sorry for your loss." But its frequent use is exactly what makes it a bad thing to include, according to Hannah Mayderry, a licensed mental health counselor and founder of Philosophie Therapy in Jacksonville, Florida.
"While it's typically offered with the best intentions, this phrase can often seem cliched and impersonal," Mayderry explains. "Instead, try acknowledging the individual's unique pain and the particular importance of the person they've lost."