What Should I Say? Writing Notes of Cheer or Condolence

Life markers happen whether we are sheltering-in-place or not. Celebrations of graduations, engagements, weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, and also, sadly, deaths are being marked while we cannot take part, either in joining the festivities or providing the comfort that takes place in funerals of those we love and admire.

A new phenomenon during this virus sheltering has been to observe some of these marker days by Zoom, FaceTime, or GoogleMeets. If you participate through any of these, that may be one facet of your responsibilities to those being honored. The other is to write a note and, if you are close to the person, make a phone call.

Perhaps more than during any other time, writing a note now is especially important and is the best way to share your heartfelt glee or heartbreaking sadness with a friend or acquaintance.  The universal worry is, “Whatever can I say that will make them feel better?” - no matter if it is canceled graduation or wedding, or because of the privacy now mandated about funerals.

Let’s take the happy occasions first…

To the person being celebrated for a high school or college graduation:

Simply say something complimentary along with your wish that a celebration had taken place that you might have attended.  For instance, begin with something like, “How exciting that you were graduated at the top of your class at Conn. We wish we could have seen you toss your cap in the air.  But we know that whether it was a virtual toss or not, it signifies the beginning of a new life for you.  Our best.” Simple and short, it shows your delight in what has taken place.


Weddings are also happening while we are isolated, often now just a simple ceremony with everyone there practicing social distancing.  Parties may take place to celebrate months from now.  No matter, a note is still needed. What to say?  Try something like, “All your friends, like me, sat home Saturday wishing we could see you in your beautiful gown in a glorious setting sharing your wedding vows with Peter.  Please know how huge our hopes are for you to enjoy boundless happiness.”


The most difficult yet most important of these notes is sending solace to a friend or acquaintance who has had a death in the family during this shutdown.  Normally, funerals or visits at this time are to provide comfort to the bereaved.  Because this can’t happen now, two things are important.  First, if the surviving relative is a friend, call.  Many people hesitate to do this but speaking for those who have experienced such losses, calls matter. If they don’t want to talk, they won’t answer. But most say these calls are welcome bright spots in days when personal visits are not allowed.  Even if it is only to say, “Judy, we are thinking about you.  May I order you some food or make any calls for you? That suffices.  Even if you do this call, a note is a must.  Why?  It provides comfort and for most people, these notes are important treasures and keepsakes that even years from now will be looked at and reread bring fond memories of your friendship.  These notes don’t need to be on special sympathy cards (although there are many beautiful ones) but they need to be handwritten notes that go beyond “I’m sorry for your loss”.  For instance, pick out some memory you cherish involving the person who has died, such as, “Learning about Matthew’s death, Richard and I thought about all the happy fishing trips he organized and how very special he made them along with your over-the-top delicious meals.”   You can go further but the point is to bring up some happy times so the bereaved can dwell on these prompted by your note.

To these sympathy notes, if you suggest a visit in the future, provide your email, phone, and home address to facilitate any follow-up.

The question comes up as to the appropriateness of using email for these notes.  An email should be a last resort but as we often don’t have access to addresses, use email only if you have to.  Again, many who receive these notes keep them and reread many times.  They are easier to keep and access if they are notes and not emails.

Here are a couple of other tips for all your note writing but especially for the sympathy notes.

  • First, don’t ever say, “I know what you are going through.” You don’t.  Everyone experiences grief differently. 

  • Second, don’t bring up your illnesses to make a comparison. 

  • Keep the focus on the other person.

Many times, people put off writing notes of any of the kinds discussed here.  All it takes, however, is a few minutes focusing on the person you are writing to, gathering your heartfelt thoughts, and doing your best to put these thoughts on paper.  Your role in this is to provide comfort and care. No matter what the occasion is.  Who doesn’t relish doing something meaningful like this for a friend?

remember to have notes available at home


Catherine S. Arcure is a professional etiquette instructor, certified by the American School of Protocol®. During her many years as a food editor and writer, Catherine not only attracted a large and loyal following but also took every opportunity to educate readers in the social graces. As a director of development for the University of Michigan and other educational and performance-related organizations, she planned and coordinated major social events for groups ranging from 20 to 2000. In addition to cultural and volunteer activities in Manhattan, Catherine enjoys spending time with her twin grandsons, who are among her most avid students. If you have enrollment questions, please contact Catherine at her email at  csarcure@att.net.