Letters of condolence

I am at the stage of life when I seem to be constantly writing letters of condolence to friends who have lost loved ones. So much so, rather than pop out to a shop to buy a card for an individual, I buy cards in bulk – my last order was for 50 cards!

Currently I am using two sets of cards. One card features on the front a Maltese cross with the words,

When you pass through deep waters,
I am with you.
When you pass through rivers,
they will not sweep you away (Isaiah 45.2)

The other card features on the front a sunflower with the words:

There is nothing love cannot face,
there is no limit to its faith,
its hope and its endurance (1 Corinthians 15.7)

Inside the card is blank – this gives plenty of room for me to write. Both cards are beautifully designed and printed by Sarah Goudie.

I agree with Debrett’s guide to style that emails should never be used as a form of communication at such a time – unless, of course, the bereaved are living abroad, in which case the more impersonal email might be acceptable. In my experience people like to have cards or letters they can easily go back to – and which they can also show to others.

But, in one respect I break with what is regarded as ‘good form’. For Debrett’s states that a letter of condolence “should always be handwritten in ink on writing paper, not a correspondence card and preferably not an off-the-shelf sympathy card”. However, although I always use my ink fountain pen, I think there is much to be said for using a card to express my Christian faith.

I ensure too that the letter itself expresses my Christian faith. Although I don’t follow a ‘template’ I always say something along the lines: ‘At this time of loss, may you know the comfort and strength which God alone can give’. In addition, I always go on to say ‘What a difference Jesus makes to living – and to dying!’

My letters of condolence are, of course, always personal, as I share my memories of the deceased, and talk of what they meant to me and to others.

Normally I end my letters to friends with the phrase ‘with all good wishes’ – but such words seem inappropriate, while ‘yours sincerely’ is too formal. So I tend to close with ‘warmly yours’. Others, I know, prefer a more distinctively ending such as ‘May God’s peace be yours!’

Finally, I normally enclose Losing a Loved One, a leaflet published by the Christian Publicity Organisation which I wrote within a fortnight of the death of my father. As I wrote in the introduction:

His death was a learning experience for me. Although as a minister I have been alongside many people when a loved one has died, I myself had never experienced the loss of someone who was really close to me. I have written this leaflet in the hope that what I learned might in some way help you in your own experience of bereavement.

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