Many events, from deaths to divorces to layoffs, may call for sympathy cards. Even if the recipient is a lifelong friend, you may have difficulty coming up with the right condolences. But a handwritten note in a sympathy card is an important personal touch and even a short, straightforward consolation will be greatly appreciated by the grieving party. Anything you write should be considerate of the emotional state of the recipient.
Don't dwell on the details of the situation. A simple statement of your sympathy, such as, "I was so sorry to hear of your brother's passing" or "You're in my thoughts and prayers during this difficult time," are more than enough to convey your intent to the recipient. Avoid writing clichés that you would not want to hear during a difficult time, such as, "It's all for the best." A sympathy card is for sympathy and support, not advice.
Story or Anecdote
Depending on the recipient, sharing an anecdote might be moving---in a good way---or even momentarily cheering. For example, if your card is for someone who has lost her job, you can remind her of a conversation you had discussing dream jobs. If the recipient has lost a loved one, it may help her to read your fond memories of that person. However, do not write lengthy descriptions or stories about yourself; stay focused on the recipient and the reason for her grief.
Offer to Help
When grieving or dealing with bad news, it is reassuring to know others are ready to help us if we need them. In your sympathy card, give the recipient an open-ended offer of assistance---any service that might relieve her of the daily pressures of life, such as providing meals, driving her to appointments, babysitting or pet-sitting or helping with laundry and cleaning. In some situations, it might be appropriate to treat the recipient to a trip or a night out to help her take her mind off of her troubles.
Don't Make Excuses
If your condolences are belated don't point it out by trying to explain how busy you've been. Similarly, don't point out the fact that you haven't spoken to the recipient in some time, or bring up the details of your history with her, especially if the two of you have had a falling out or have grown apart. Keep your note focused on the recipient and the event that has caused her grief.