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With deepest sympathy: How to write a condolence note

A condolence note may be one of the hardest messages you'll ever have to write. Here's some advice on how to express sympathy, whether online or off.

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Flowers and cards from loved ones top a casket as it's lowered into the ground at burial.

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Shooting off an email or a comment on social media is commonplace today so expressing your condolences digitally might be your instinct.

That may be the appropriate way to respond if the news of someone's passing is shared online. Similarly, if you're not a relative or close friend, a quick expression of sympathy via email or Facebook may be comforting.

In many cases, however, you should go a step further and write a condolence note. It might seem quaint, even old fashioned, but a handwritten message of sympathy to the bereaved is the surest way you can acknowledge the gravity of someone's death. It will also be one of the hardest notes you'll ever write.

"Your decision to handwrite that note and physically send it starts to communicate the weight or the seriousness that you want it to be received with," says Daniel Senning, etiquette expert and spokesperson at the Emily Post Institute. The Institute's website has comprehensive advice on both bereavement and condolence notes.

Plenty of other websites offer suggestions on how to write the most meaningful condolence notes. Here are five of their most important tips.

1. Choosing the proper stationery

The first thing you're going to do is choose suitable stationery or an appropriate card, says Legacy Connect. Plain cards or stationery with floral motifs are a safe bet. Humorous cards probably aren't going to work. Tuck the cartoons away. You wouldn't tweet a skull-and-crossbones emoji to express your sympathy, would you?

2. How to address the card

Who you address the note to depends on who you knew. If you knew the deceased, but not his or her family, you should address it to the spouse or closest living relative, notes Obituaries Help. If you knew one of the deceased's relatives but not the deceased, address the note to that relative.

Emily Post's Senning says that if you don't know the bereaved's address -- a common issue among internet communities -- you should discreetly inquire about a mailing address. If you need to, reach out to the family or close friends directly, expressing your intention to send a sympathy note.

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3. Writing from the heart

Say what you feel, advises the Emily Post Institute. After all, what you're trying to express should come from the heart.

Start the note with a sincere expression of sympathy, recommends Funeral Zone. If you have fond memories of the deceased, add a loving, personal remembrance.

If you didn't know the person well, you might offer to help the family during their period of mourning, suggests Help Guide. It's useful to be specific -- think babysitting or dog walking -- when offering assistance. People in grief don't want to think about delegating tasks; being specific means they won't have to.

Another option the handwritten note opens is the ability to include a sympathy gift. Food and flowers are traditional, but gift cards and gift certificates are increasingly common.

Online bereavement website Heart2Soul offers some brief sample scripts and tips. Another resource for writing condolence notes is Quick Condolence, which offers religious and secular approaches to crafting notes.

4. Offering your sympathies online

Sometimes, it's appropriate to express your sorrow on the web or by email. Usually, that's when you weren't a close friend of the deceased or the family.

In those cases, most of the same rules apply, says Obituaries Help. Make sure to mention the deceased by name and express sincere sympathy. Don't just dash off a line or two because the medium is less formal. Always make sure to fill in the subject line. Letters.org also includes some sample scripts you can use for inspiration.

Legacy.com has some very useful advice specific to responding on Facebook. Think carefully before you post and go slow so that you don't make typos. The website also suggests you respond to photos posted by the bereaved by sharing memories of the deceased.

5. What to avoid

Some topics aren't appropriate, either in a note or online.

Bereavement resource What's Your Grief advises avoiding anything that suggests someone's death was "for the best." Similarly, stay away from saying the deceased is "in a better place."

Don't imply a death was part a divine plan and exclude religious references unless you know they'll be welcome, suggests Heart2Soul. And don't compare someone else's bereavement with a loss of your own.

If the etiquette of condolence seems elaborate, know it's for a good reason, says Sarah Chavez, executive director at The Order of the Good Death. The organisation focuses on demystifying and destigmatising both death and mourning.

"We need to be death- and grief-literate so that we can help each other and be the best people, best friends, best significant others, best whatever, that we can be for each other," she says.

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