Guide to Sympathy Etiquette-2023

Sympathy Etiquette

Wild Calla Lilies in California

My name is Gareth Eckley. I have the honor of working with families in grief to help make a sympathy jewel with a hand carved portrait cameo of their loved one.

My customers have taught me so much about how they want to be treated by others. I make sure that I always am respectful and sensitive. I share many of those insights on dealing with personal loss here.

My golden rule is to respect and treat others as you would like to be treated if you were in their situation.

Some of my customers stories involve illness, cancer or even tragic accidents and are heart breaking to hear. I am so aware that I am talking to people in a pain that I can not even begin to imagine.

How to Talk to the Family – Respect and Sensitivity

The most important advice is to try to ‘put yourself in their shoes’. If you think in this way you will naturally say the right thing.

Do mention their loss and that you are so sorry that they are having to deal with this. You can ask if you can help in anyway.

If you visit the home, there will often be a friend or family member who acts as a shield. They will welcome you and answer questions that you may have.

They will also decide if you should have a personal visit with the grieving person. Accept their decision and don’t be upset if you are not invited in. You can always visit again. It may be that the parent or spouse may just be too exhausted to see anyone at that time.

Sympathy Cards

handmade sympathy card lotus art uk
Lotus Art Studio UK

A handmade Sympathy card is the very best idea. This shows that you really care by spending time to find a personal and beautiful card.

Try to send your card soon to arrive within the first few days if you can.

Sending a card long after the event can also be a lovely gesture. Some people suggest sending a card on the anniversary of the loved one’s death.

This is a good idea but if you know their date of birth, why not send a card to mark their birthday as well ? The family will be marking this day and your card is sure to be noticed.

The handmade sympathy cards that I picture are from Lotus Art studio. These are the finest sympathy cards that I have found so far. They are located in the UK and they do offer world wide delivery by airmail – 15 days or international courier – much faster.

Search for the best source of handmade cards in your area. You could always make your own, there are how to guides and videos online.

Writing your Sympathy Card


Who do I address the card to ?

Here are the three forms of addressing the envelope. I use my name as an example.

  1.  For a friend, Gareth or Gareth and Sheila or Gareth and family
  2.  For a colleague, write Gareth and family
  3.  If you don’t know the person well, use The family of Gareth Eckley

Write your letter by hand. A typed letter feels cold and unemotional.

Many sympathy cards have a pre-printed massage inside. Write your personal message below and sign your first and last name. Your full name conveys more respect.

Can my Sympathy Card be Religious ?

Using religious words in your sympathy card is a personal choice. Most people are not going to be offended if you say that “they are in your prayers”.

You may know the family well and if they go to church then you can send a card that is very religious.

I have other sections with advice on how other cultures and religions mark the passing of a loved one.

Should I send Flowers ?

white orchids
Beautiful White Orchids

Sending flowers is a good idea. There are two types of flowers, sympathy flowers and funeral flowers. I talk about funeral flowers later in this guide.

Sympathy flowers are sent directly to the loved ones family. Tell your florist what the bouquet is for. They will make sure that the arrangement is the right size and not too large.

White flowers such as white roses, orchids, irisis and Lillies are the usual choices. A good idea is to send a potted white orchid. When a bouquet has died and been thrown out your potted plant will still be alive and may well last for years.

Send your own separate sympathy card or note along with the flowers as it will allow you greater space to express your true feelings.

When to Send Flowers


There are three times to send flowers;

  1. As soon as you hear the news
  2. Directly to the Funeral
  3. To arrive at the home after the funeral

Can I use Social Media or email to Send Condolences ?

Social media is a natural place to express sympathy, in fact, to not post a message after hearing of a loss would be unthinkable.

I do feel that you should still send a card, because it takes effort. You have to shop for the card, write a message and post it. This really does show that you care. For people under 20 this may be the first time they have used the post office.

Personally, I don’t like the use of email. Sending an e.mail just seems to easy and sending real mail shows that you care far more.

How you can Help to Comfort Children

A Vermont Comfort Teddy Bear

The children in a bereaved family are often ‘the forgotten ones’.

There is often so much going on, people visiting and their parents may be so overcome with their own grief that they are unable to spend as much time with their own children as they want.

Consider giving a comfort Teddy Bear to a child. Young children may gain comfort by hugging a new bear. There are many places to buy teddy bears. This teddy bear is from Vermont Teddy Bear

Another idea is to give the child a Sympathy blanket. Try to personalize that design to suit the child. Does the child have a favorite movie or storybook character ? Can you buy a blanket that has this image embroidered on it ?

This is a good resource for more information on grief-in-children.

What if your Children are Friends with the Family ?


Your own children will want to help their friends. They may want to give a gift and this is a good idea.

Have your children select the gift for their friend. This is where that painted sympathy rock could actually be a good gift, from a child to another child.

A death in the family breaks up the normal routine. You could be very helpful for a child or children. Can you take them to their school, clubs, sporting activities and events. This can be a big help to the parents.

You can arrange a play date with the bereaved families children. This gives the kids a chance to get out of the house and to see their friends. This is sure to be appreciated.

Many adults think children don’t understand death, and therefore aren’t affected as deeply by it. They don’t know how to deal with it, so they just leave the kids alone.

Children need as much comfort and support in times of bereavement as adults do.

Support for Grieving Parents


My sympathy work has inspired me to donate 3% of all sales to Charities that support parents dealing with the loss of a child.

One of the charities I have chosen to support is Grieving Parents , founded by Nathalie Himmelrich. Her books are an excellent resource, as is her website.

If you are looking for a local support group, a search on Grief Share will show results for your area. They also offer support, guidance and can help you find a grief counsellor in your area.

You do not have to deal with this by yourself, there is help out there.

My Personal Story of How Not to Talk


I lost my mother when an operation to fix a broken shoulder went wrong. She had a pulmonary embolism, while in surgery. They could not revive her and she passed, on New Years’ eve, in 2005.

We lived next door and she was a wonderful Nana to my two boys and a good friend to my wife.

A few days later, I was with my wife and my two boys, aged 5 and 6. We ran into a friend of the family, in the local town. What she said upset all of us.

Gareth, sorry to hear about your mother. This must be awful for your sister, she was so very close to your mother. I will send her a card and some flowers. She must be so very upset.

Then she walked away. I was standing there with my wife and my two boys and she had completely ignored them. She had failed to acknowledge their loss, let alone that I may have feelings on the loss of my own mother, who I was very close to.

Always remember the hurt of the person you are talking to. I would have been fine talking about my sister’s loss if she had mentioned how the four of us had also lost a mother, friend, and grandma.

Can I Bring Food ?


This is a much loved prop in movies television shows. Friends bring over food such as cake and pasta.

I would check first to see what food allergies may be present before making or buying food.

I was once at a party and someone had bought cakes decorated with peanuts. My son ate one and had a severe anaphylactic reaction. We had to use his epipen, call an ambulance and stay overnight in the hospital.

This was a rare event but bringing over cake and pasta to people who are allergic to gluten can be a significant risk.

People in shock and grief have practically no appetite so it really is best to visit first then ask if bringing food would be welcome.

Shiva Food Tradition

It is very common for individuals making a shiva call, and interested in sending something to a family during Jewish mourning, to send a traditional food item to the shiva house.

Sending a sympathy gift or shiva basket, which typically includes baked goods, fruit, dried fruit and nuts or chocolate, is considered appropriate.

When Should I Phone to Talk to the Family ?

There are no hard and fast rules here. My suggestion is to consider how close you are to the family. Immediate family and close friends would obviously call as soon as they hear the news.

If you are not in that close circle I would wait at least 24 hours before calling.  A phone call on the second or third day may be better. By that time a friend may well be staying who will answer the phone.

If you don’t hear until much later then I would say do call. You have shown that you care. Try not to spend too much time on the phone and don’t talk about your own problems. I know, sounds crazy but some people do this.

If you are more distant, a friend or a work colleague, then sending a sympathy card maybe better.

Don’t Say These 5 Things

If you think of how you would like to be treated you won’t say these insensitive phrases.

I know how you feel…You need to be strong now…At least they lived a good life…How did they die ?…You will get over this…

When I am talking to my customers I am so aware that I do not know how they feel, how could anyone. Even if you have experienced a similar loss yourself, you still should not say so. Talking about the details of how someone died is never a good idea.

Should I buy a Sympathy Gift ?

Sympathy Cameo Jewel for Grandma with a Portrait of her Husband

I make Bespoke Sympathy Jewelry. Designed with a hand carved gemstone portrait of a ‘loved one’. Set in precious metal such as Gold or Platinum to make custom necklaces, pendants or brooch pins.

I work with the family or possible a close friend. Typically the husband or mother asks me to make a Story Jewel of their child. Sometimes the Grandmother wants to give this gift to her daughter.

Click to visit see my Sympathy Cameo Jewelry.

A Sympathy Gift in Kind – Plant a Tree

plant a tree in the national forest
Plant a tree in the National Forest

How about a gift in kind.

A tree planted in their name. You can plant a single tree or two, three, a grove of trees or even up to 500 trees in the United States National Forest. You can choose which forest the trees are planted in.

New trees will be planted in your honoree’s name in a forest or park that is in desperate need. These trees will help create clean drinking water and wildlife habitat.

You can give a gift of trees, memorialize a loved one, celebrate a special occasion, or just give back because you cherish our National Forests. Make a difference that grows with each gift level.

Each tree planting includes a personalized commemorative card to be mailed to you or your gift recipient. Your personalized card will be stamped and mailed to the mailing address provided at check out.

Choose from a wood grain commemorative card with an image of a National Forest on the front cover, or a sympathy greeting card.

You could plant a tree on land that you own and invite the family to visit whenever they wish.

Should I Send Money ?

In general sending money is not a good idea. It may give the impression that  money is a compensation for a loss.

Some families ask for a donation to a charity or other good cause instead of money or flowers.

One of my customers had set up an online page to handle donations to their chosen charity. This is an excellent idea.

A Story of What Not to Say

I met a friend of mine shortly after her brother died. He had committed suicide and the family was obviously in terrible pain and shock.

She told me of a visit where the visitor had mostly talked about herself, including details of her own love life for close to two hours.

This was so insensitive and caused great pain to my friend. You are there for the person who has had the loss, not to talk about you.

Traditions of Popular Cultures

My advice would always be to ask a friend of the family for advice on expected behaviour. Some families are quite private about their own religion. If a family is not religious, they may still follow the culture that they identify with.

Sympathy for Hispanic Families

white flower arrangement

Hispanic Religion equates to the Roman Catholic faith among most Hispanics. Many grew up practicing many of the typical Roman Catholic Sunday mass and funeral traditions. The wake may include mariachis, overnight visitations, and a family feast.

Floral tributes are welcome. A simple bouquet given to the bereaved or a tribute in the shape of a cross or a personalized candle makes an acceptable gift, as does lighting a candle in the church.

Personal items and gifts may be laid in the casket to help the deceased have a successful journey to the afterworld. Burial follows the ceremony. Following the burial, the family usually gathers to eat, reminisce and comfort each other.

Mexicans and Central Americans believe there are days when the dead return to walk among us and that their loved ones’ bodies have died but that their spirits live on. They pray to them, talk to them and turn to them for guidance and support.

Jewish Traditions

shiva gift basket


Shiva begins immediately following the burial and lasts for seven days, ending after the morning service on the seventh day. Shiva is not observed on the Sabbath (Friday at sundown through Saturday at sundown) or holidays.

It is common to find that some families may only sit shiva for one-to-three days, depending on many factors, including level of observance or the deceased’s instructions or wishes


A shiva is traditionally observed in the home of the deceased, but may also be observed in the residence of an immediate family member. In today’s world, many families are dispersed and live in cities throughout the country. As a result, it is becoming more common for a shiva to take place simultaneously in multiple locations.

What to Bring

It is very common for individuals making a shiva call, and interested in sending something to a family during Jewish mourning, to send a traditional food item to the shiva house or to plant trees in Israel.

In fact, sending a sympathy gift or shiva basket, which typically includes baked goods, fruit, dried fruit and nuts or chocolate, is considered appropriate. Alternatives to providing food include planting a tree in Israel or making a donation in memory of the deceased to a designated temple, charity or organization.

An excellent resource for Shiva traditions.

Muslim Traditions

muslim funeral image

3 Comments to “ Guide to Sympathy Etiquette-2023”

  1. Sheila Dyer says :Reply

    This is such a comprehensive guide to Sympathy Etiquette. Covers so many different situation in a sensitive and beautiful way. Thank you for sharing this.


  2. Suzanne Andre says :Reply

    This is a well put together guide on Sympathy Etiquette. It covers so many needed topics on ways to handle topics ranging from flowers, donations, food and gifts to the different traditions of each of the religions.

  3. I love that you talked about the importance of considering the price to its quality. My mother told me that she is looking for a solar angel statue sympathy gift for her friend, and she asked if I have suggestions on where she can buy it. Thank you for this informative article, I’ll be sure to consult a trusted sympathy gifts store.

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