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How to word a sympathy card for a colleague

Updated November 21, 2016

Expressing sympathy to a colleague, co-worker or professional acquaintance can be an uncomfortable and unfamiliar thing to do. Giving the bereaved a sympathy card that is written in a professional, concise way, however, can get your point across without overstepping any boundaries. Read on to gather some tips on how you can write a meaningful, yet professional, sympathy card.

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  1. Determine the relationship between your co-worker and the deceased (i.e. father/son, brother/sister-in-law). Factor in any relevant details of the death, noting elements like whether this person was very old, suffered from a pre-existing condition or was taken very unexpectedly. These details may not make it into your sympathy card, but it can help you empathise with your co-worker and what they must be feeling.

  2. Determine the type of relationship you have with your co-worker. Do you talk regularly? Hang out on the weekends? Acknowledge each other only when necessary? Partner up consistently on projects? Evaluating your level of interaction allows you to determine how close you are and, therefore, what kind of response may be appropriate for you.

  3. Choose a sympathy card from a greeting card store that is simple and straightforward. Avoid anything with flowery, overly dramatic language, bible verses (unless you know they're religious and would appreciate the sentiment) and positive, look-on-the-bright-side-they're-not-in-pain-anymore types of clichés. Remember, this is a professional colleague, not your best friend since kindergarten.

  4. Write your sentiments in a private place, away from your other co-workers. Your desk may work just fine as long as it isn't in a very public place. Remember that this card is for your colleague, not to show your co-workers that you're a great guy for going the extra mile.

  5. Write a concise, yet sensitive message that states the following: you're sorry to hear about his loss, you wish him all the best in getting through this rough time, you're here if he needs to talk or needs help picking up any slack at work (if applicable).

  6. Place the card on your co-worker's desk chair. If he's not in the office you can mail it to his home address if it's available. If you end up giving the card to your co-worker face to face, simply state that you know he's going through a rough time and just wanted to show your support. Hand them the card and give them a quick, yet heartfelt pat on the back. Walk away.

  7. Tip

    Though e-mail is an effective workplace tool it is not the appropriate vehicle for sympathy. Take the extra few minutes to buy a card and hand write it.

    Don't worry or get offended if he doesn't ever acknowledge your card. He may have bigger things on his mind or simply may not know how to broach the subject. A sympathy card is just that, a card that expresses sympathy. As long as you've given him the card then you've accomplished what you set out to do. No further action is necessary.

    Some people like to circulate office-wide sympathy cards. This has its pros and cons - one being that your co-worker may not want his tragedy splashed all over the office in the shape of a card. Though these can be warmly received, give some extra thought to whether or not it is appropriate for everyone in the office to acknowledge the death and express their condolences on a generic, "from all of us" card.

    Another sticky subject is writing a sympathy card to a superior. It can be done, but be sure that your rhetoric remains extremely professional. You may also want to include your last name and even title/department in the card, as higher-up executives and even some bosses may oversee many people and not exactly know which "John" you are. In this case, I would recommend placing the card on their desk after hours or giving it to his secretary.


    Make it a point to avoid speculation about the death or your co-worker's state of mind. This is not the time for office gossip and no good can come from making assumptions about a loved one's demise. If you're asked about the subject, simply state to your other co-workers that you feel badly for your colleague and wish him all the best. End the conversation there.

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About the Author

Nellie Day

Nellie Day is a freelance writer based out of Hermosa Beach, Calif. Her work can regularly be seen on newsstands, where her specialties include weddings, real estate, food and wine, pets, electronics, architecture and design, business and travel. Day earned a master's degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Southern California.

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