Condolence, congrats, thanks and other personal letters

7 July 2015

Image courtesy of Pong /

“Oh, crap.” 

That’s how I began a text to my very dear friend when I found she had lost her father to the ravages of cancer. We have that kind of relationship, one that allows for impulsive expression via social technology.

But that’s not how I would start a condolence message to a client, employee or board member.

Crafting genuine, meaningful letters of condolence – even congratulations and appreciation – can be harder than you expect. It’s no wonder CEOs pass off the task to their assistants and PR/Communication Managers.

I’ve written many such letters, to people I’ve never met, on behalf of bosses and clients. Here are four valuable tips for conveying sympathy, empathy and gratitude in professional contexts.

1. Correct names.

Make sure you address the letter (or note card) to the appropriate person and spell their title and name correctly.

Nothing shouts insincerity as loudly as not taking the time and effort to get this most essential information right. The same applies for naming the deceased family member or colleague.

Personalising messages also conveys that you are genuinely interested in how the situation has impacted on the recipient’s feelings and focus. A congratulatory memo to All Staff might seem expedient, but the individuals concerned could suspect that you haven’t really noticed their contributions at all.

2. Correct channel.

Condolences and commiserations should be relayed via letters or notes, not emails, texts or video. It’s best to post them via snail mail than simply attach them to an email.

Write the message by hand or type it on letterhead, depending on the relationship between the signatory and the reader. Have some blank corporate note cards printed and ready for such occasions – for handwritten notes or a glued-in typed and hand-signed message.

Resist shop-bought cards… they expose your inadequacy for expressing true compassion.

Congratulatory and appreciative messages can be sent by email, text or video, and these channels are perfect for timely acknowledgement, but a hard copy is treasured more.

Again, get the name right – remember the highly contagious video of Tony Abbott’s gaffe at the start of the World Cup in Brazil?

3. Clear connection.

In your opening paragraph, express your empathy:

“I was saddened to learn that your son, John, had recently passed away. On behalf of all the staff at XYZ, I express our deepest sympathies for your loss.”

“I am delighted to convey that you have been selected as the recipient of this year’s prestigious XYZ Award. Congratulations!”

“I thank you most sincerely for your efforts over the past month to secure the XYZ contract.”

Then describe what the recipient or their loved one meant to your company, and include a specific memory or attribute if you can:

“Perhaps John didn’t talk much about his work with XYZ, but we valued John’s commitment over the past seven years, especially as it helped to attract many new clients to our XYZ branch …”

“We will miss your friendly presence in the office while you are on bereavement leave; however, we understand that you’ll need time and space to grieve…”

Or, what the recipient’s efforts and achievements mean for the company:

“Your leadership on this project has set new standards for our company and enhanced our reputation for technical excellence in the XYZ sector.”

4. Close with comfort.

Draw the letter or note to a close with another expression of care before signing with ‘Yours sincerely’:

“We trust that over the weeks ahead your treasured memories of John help you find strength and peace.”

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you at this time of sorrow, Mary, and we look forward to welcoming you back when you are ready.”

“This is a truly inspiring achievement and we are thrilled to see it awarded to someone so deserving.”

“Without your efforts, we could not have achieved this success. Thank you, once again, for your commitment and support.”

The worst you can do is not acknowledge this profound and momentous occasion, especially when the subject of the communication has contributed positively to your professional interests. Kathleen Buckstaff sums it up perfectly:

“Reaching out through a note or a letter is a way of saying, I witness your loss and I see you. Often, when someone is in a dark hole, being seen is enough. An act of kindness is enough. A few sentences are enough. I’m thinking of how gentle rain can feel kind on hot skin.”

Got a difficult letter to write? Calling Presence on 0439 53 43 55 can help alleviate the pain.

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