Perspectives on Grieving
How to Write a Condolence Note for a Child or Teen
By Ronan Limroth
Losing a loved one, or even a not so loved one, is often the hardest thing a person will have to go through in their lives. No matter who you are, “getting over it” (more on that later!*) doesn’t come easy, and perhaps never comes at all. I know it wasn’t easy for me. As hard as this challenge is for adults, it is even harder for children. Children who have lost a loved one can be left sad, depressed, confused, or angry, a mixture of emotions that are all difficult for a developing child. This is why it is so important for a child to have someone there to guide them and help them during this tough time. A common way of doing this is writing a condolence note for a child, however, this is something that needs to be done carefully and thoughtfully in order to provide intended support without upsetting the child.
By the time I experienced my first loss, I felt that I was old enough to cope with it by myself, but receiving a condolence note, to my surprise, made me feel a lot better and made me feel like I was not alone. Even something as simple as “Hey Ronan, I am so sorry about your loss. I am here for you” can make all the difference. As a 14 year-old boy, I understood everything that was happening. I didn’t need an explanation. But receiving a warm, thoughtful condolence note was something that really helped me feel better.
There are several things you need to keep in mind before you start writing a condolence note:
- Make sure you know how old the child is and their level of maturity or development so as to avoid the impression that you are talking down to the child or conversely using words that are over their heads.
- It is important to keep in mind the cause of death and whether or not the child is aware of the cause. If the death was violent or sudden, tread carefully and don’t reference details of the death. You don’t know how much was shared with the youth.
- Avoid clichés!
- For example, don’t mention something about how this is God’s plan or that God has something to do with it because this could leave the child upset or angry with God. In fact, it is never a good idea to give the child a person to blame, as this could store anger and hatred within the child.
- Saying that the deceased is “in a better place” is also not a good idea. For me, it wouldn’t have made me feel better if someone had told me this because it wouldn’t have changed the fact that the person wasn’t in my life anymore. And hey, the “better place” is with me!
- If a child’s parent has passed away, make sure you avoid the saying “you are the man (or woman) of the house now.” They are still a child and need to have their childhood. It could leave the child scared and overwhelmed about their new responsibilities. Personally, I would never want to hear this, even as a teenager, because it would put a ton of pressure and stress on me during an already tough time.
- Whatever you do, it is never a good idea to lie to the child. I heard once how a child was told their grandparent had moved away! Kids can handle the truth.
Here are some good strategies when writing your note:
- Talk about your relationship with the deceased, share a memory, or tell a story about you and the deceased. Or all three!
- While doing this, make sure you stay positive and mention positive qualities of the person who has passed away.
- At the funeral, my favorite part was listening to all the great stories and memories people had of the deceased.
- If you have experienced something similar to what the child is going through, it might be nice to write about what helped you during that time.
- When my dog died, someone wrote our family a condolence note and it made me feel so much better to know that someone else understood what we were going through.
- Tell them you are sorry for their loss and express your condolences in the letter at least once.
- This is probably the most important thing to do and it is often the one thing a child wants to hear.
- For me, it was just nice to know that people cared.
- You could also talk about how you miss the deceased and how they are in your thoughts and prayers.
- For me, knowing that I wasn’t the only one who missed the person was comforting.
- Finally, a great thing to do is tell the child that you are there for them if they ever need anything or need someone to talk to.
- You could even offer them an opportunity to hang out with you because depending on how well you know the child or teen, you could be there for him to help fill the void he has from losing a loved one. But only do this if you plan to follow through!
- Several people said this to me, and even if I didn’t need or want someone to talk to, I really appreciated the gesture and it was nice to know that I had people there for me.
Losing a loved one can be especially hard on a child, but saying the right thing in a condolence note can mean all the difference.
* Note from Imagine Executive Director Mary Robinson, MA, CT
Grief is not something we “get over,” but with time and support, we learn to live with the loss and integrate it into our lives. As we grow and mature we realize that life is about living with the joy and sorrow of life side by side. We may miss the person who died for the rest of our lives, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have a happy and fulfilled life. Life is just different. So in that sense, we don’t “get over” a loss but rather learn to live with it and even grow and be transformed by it.