If Google Search trends are truly the zeitgeist for human trends and behaviors, then there’s a truth to be found in them around sympathy: people don’t know how to write a sympathy card. “How to write a sympathy letter,” and its many variants, is one of the most searched for phrases around sympathy, and there are an infinite number of blogs and articles that serve up suggestions.
In fact, there are so many articles that at first, we thought, “well, that’s done.” Yet when we looked closer, we noticed something: every article was essentially saying the same thing. Across the board, most sites recommend an almost identical list of phrases to include on your card. Those lists include: with sympathy, my deepest condolences, praying for you, so sorry for your loss, our thoughts and prayers are with you, in loving memory, etc.
We were curious whether or not the sympathies on those lists did indeed satisfy the grieving heart. Based on what we knew here at Floracracy, after writing hundreds and hundreds of letters, we didn’t think so.
We decided to survey those who recently lost someone and ask, “do note cards with traditional grief messages actually help? And if not, what does?”
It turns out, a mere 7% of consumers found those cards helpful. And many of the 93% who found them not beneficial would describe those cards as hurtful or harmful.
It begged further questioning from us, what can we do instead?
Contradicting the belief that all grieving people just want to be left alone, the answer was to participate in more thoughtful exercises that create intimate experiences around physical touch and presence.
How People Really Feel About Traditional Sympathy Cards
The goal of this survey was to understand how people really feel about sympathy cards and the messages we put in them. Upon completion of our survey, we found a need for intimacy much more nuanced than what was provided by most traditional sympathy messages and the flowers we send with them.
Our most notable finding was that only 7% of those surveyed wanted to receive a traditional sympathy card. Everyone else was divided between two categories: in-person visits and meaningful letters or gestures. Overall, in-person visits rank higher. However, if you look at specific age brackets, the information is more nuanced.
In the 18 to 24-year-old age group, personalized letters, gestures, or personalized gifts ranked highest. Again, personalized letters rank highest among individuals over 45 in specific demographics (such as households with incomes over $75,000). For individuals between the ages of 24 and 45, as well as in households under $75,000, people coming to be with them and helping them is the most asked for support. Letters come in second.
This does genuinely strike against the narrative that “people who are grieving just want to be left alone.” Instead, grieving individuals are looking for community and very tactile acts of support.
With these results, it’s important not to infer that to want a letter means you don’t want people around. The research behind personalized letters shows that personalized letters and gifts can meet the same physiological need as personally visiting someone: the need for physical contact. Indeed, these two categories are moving toward the same emotional need. Unpublished research completed by Matthew Lieberman and shared in his book “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect,” found that positive words written down actually change our body temperature to mimic what we experience with a human touch. So when someone is asking for a personalized, positive letter, they are asking to meet the same need as you physically being there: they are asking to experience someone being present in their grief.
Also important to note, a mere 6% of all age groups listed phone calls as something they preferred to receive (though 44% said it was helpful when done). And again, only 4% wanted a traditional sympathy card with conventional sympathy flowers (further questions showed people want more personalized experiences here too). The conclusion from this is that people are deeply craving intimacy during most stages of grief. If you can physically be with someone, be with them. Bring them food. Just sit with them and let them talk. If you cannot, or you’ve done that and feel you need to do more, then the next best thing you can do is write them a truly thoughtful letter, and there are particular stories and ways you can write this to be intimate and helpful.
The Stories People Want to Hear May Depend on Their Age
As part of the survey, we wanted to determine the specifics of what people wanted to hear if it was not traditional sympathy cards. Here again, the results depended on age.
Across every age bracket except 35 to 44-year-olds, the stories most wanted were “funny” ones.
The role of humor here is significant to the healing process. It’s not just words written down that create that sensation of touch. It’s positive words. No words are more positive than the ones that make us laugh. Trauma expert George Bonanno’s article titled “Loss, Trauma and Human Resilience: Have We Underestimated the Human Capacity to Thrive After Extremely Aversive Events?” further discusses how this further supports this conclusion. He writes, “those who exhibited genuine smiles and laughs while grieving, displayed less grief over time and evoked positive emotions in others.” The impact of funny, positive stories can change how some experience grief.
Further, positive psychology researcher Sarah Francois-Poncet explains in her capstone research project “When Words Matter Most,” that “ sharing positive words at times of pain trigger the positive behavior as seen in positive psychology: action over inaction, meaning over despair, resilience over hopelessness.”
The Age Category “35–44” Has Unique Needs Around Grief
Our survey discovered that the age group 35 - 44 years had different needs than all the other age brackets. They also wanted to hear stories about the deceased’s best qualities, just as much as funny ones. They were the only group where funny stories were not the highest-ranked choice. The third highest-ranking story type (surprising stories) was far, far lower than the other age groups. They were the only group who prioritized receiving food over other helpful acts of support, with the second-highest being someone to help them process their emotions. They were the only age group where more people thought you could end a sympathy letter than those who felt you could not (52%).
Again, this most likely speaks to the additional strain felt when losing someone while also caring for children and facing the most demanding period of their professional lives. There is less time to process emotions, a higher need to feel inspired by the deceased to keep going, and possibly a limited desire for the funny and surprising.
Sometimes What We Think Won’t Help, Does in the End
When we dug into the data, we noticed something interesting. Across the board, what people said they most wanted, often was then ranked lower when we asked people what really helped. Interestingly, in our survey, things that people said helped were often things people said they didn’t want. One example was letters and calls. Calls ranked very low in terms of what people wanted, but many age groups reported they did help. While personal letters ranked overall right below someone visiting you in person, they were valued far more in terms of what actually helped. What does this mean? Two things. First, people sometimes don’t know what will help. Sometimes what we think we want isn’t what actually helps. The idea of a letter may feel impersonal, or we may resent someone just calling instead of coming over. Yet in real life, when we read that letter, our body temperature warms, and we feel this unexpected sense of presence and peace. Then again, we may hear that voice and realize it’s nice to sit in our messy house with someone on the phone and not be worried about looking presentable.
You Can’t Really End a Sympathy Letter
Search trends indicated something else interesting. People aren’t just unsure how to write sympathy messages. They don’t know how to end them (or really, how to begin them) either. Again, we asked individuals grieving if they thought you could appropriately end a sympathy letter, and 47% of respondents said no.
This question is more obtuse and yet speaks to the heart of grief and supporting those who are grieving. It is a process. Unlike death, grief has no end. Great loss lives with you forever in some way or another. There is no ending to it, and so any sort of ending to a letter seems instinctively to put finiteness on something that has no such limits in reality. What we’ve found, when reviewing comments, is that for every person who found “I’m so sorry for your loss” helpful, another didn’t.
One survey response, however, ranked above the others. Most of those polled said they would like to receive “something personal and specific to you.” This is why we recommend just focusing on the stories you share and what the person meant to you (see our other blog on this). Don’t even try to sum up loss with a salutation. You can’t, and the person grieving knows this. They may make note that you didn’t try and appreciate it.
How to Write a Sympathy Letter
We encourage you to read our article on How to Write a Sympathy Letter That Helps People Grieve. In the article, we break down how we recommend writing a letter based on our survey results.
However, one thing for certain in writing a grief letter is that it’s important to remember that grief goes through stages. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is value in thinking about the specific way that you can adapt your messaging to this. For example, someone in the anger stage may not want to hear any words of encouragement, so you could simply validate their current feelings by saying something like, “this is so unfair, and you have every right to be angry. I’m here for you if you need to vent.”
We saw the impact of this in our open-ended questions. Many people said hearing “sorry for your loss” was helpful. Equally so, many felt it was one of the worst things you could say. Many people wanted support and for individuals to be there for them. Many also said they just wanted to be left alone.
It can be challenging to know what stage someone may be in, but if we follow authentic desires to share positive words and be present, a letter that doesn’t feel right upon arrival may become a cherished experience a few weeks later. And that’s okay. It’s done its job. It’s created that intimate sense of touch when the person you love needed it the most. If there’s one thing that research shows, it’s that saying something is better than saying nothing at all. Do your best. Be present and meaningful with your words. Love will prevail.