When someone you know suffers a loss, it's hard to find the right words to express your concern. The word sympathy hails from the Greek "sym" and "pascho," root words that together imply suffering with someone else. When you express sympathy, you demonstrate an awareness of another person's pain and a desire to bring him some relief. There is no single perfect formula, because expressions of sympathy are intensely personal. There are, however, simple rules to bear in mind that can help you get your message across effectively.

Keep your message short but clear. Carefully chosen words can speak volumes, and someone who is suffering emotionally might be short on patience. Even a single line or two that express genuine concern in simple language should suffice, according to The Emily Post Institute.

Be real. Whether you're jotting off an email, writing a letter or calling on the phone, keep your message honest. In the case of a death, for example, express your feelings about the loss. You might write, "I am so sorry about your grandfather's passing." If you knew the deceased, you might write, "I was shocked and deeply saddened when I heard about Jim's death."

Mention a personal memory you have of the deceased. Doing so adds a personal touch that can be tremendously comforting to mourners. You might write, "Her smile always lit up the office," or "I'll never forget the time he gave me lift to the airport at 2 a.m." If you never met the deceased, mention something you know about your friend's or colleague's relationship with him. For example, write, "You always spoke so warmly about your dad. I know the two of you were close." If both the deceased and the bereaved are strangers to you, keep your message simple but sincere: "I know this is a difficult time for you and the family."

Suggest practical ways you might help. Dealing with funeral arrangements, recuperating after an accident or miscarriage and dealing with sudden unemployment can be overwhelming. Your offer to babysit, drive carpool, cook a meal or pick up groceries can help relieve some of the physical and mental stress associated with the death of a loved one, illness or loss of a job.

Use nice stationery or an appealing card. Good-quality, tasteful writing paper and a personalized handwritten message are tangible expressions of caring and concern. The bereaved might save and reread your note many times over the years. High-quality paper helps the recipient preserve your message.

Conclude with a brief comforting statement, such as "My thoughts are with you" or "May you be comforted." Sign your name, identifying yourself clearly by your first and last names. If appropriate, include parenthetical information, such as "A friend from Jane's book club."

Tip

  • The Emily Post Institute says handwritten sympathy notes deserve acknowledgement. If you wish to relieve mourners of this obligation, add a line requesting that your note not be acknowledged.

    If your friend has publicly acknowledged her loss on a social networking site, it's probably safe to follow her lead and post your condolences there. Before you add something to her Facebook wall, however, consider how your friend would react to such a message. If you're particularly close, she might consider a hastily written public posting shallow and insensitive. In any event, follow up with a handwritten note. You should never be the one who makes the initial public announcement about your friend's loss.

Tip

  • Avoid open-ended offers to help, such as "Feel free to call if you need anything," which come across as insincere.

    Resist the temptation to include cliches, such as "I know how you feel" or "Time heals all wounds," which deny what is unique about the person's loss. Don't mention disagreements you might have had with the deceased; doing so is in poor taste.

    Don't ask "How are you?" or "How are you managing?" If you need to send a sympathy card, the answer is probably "Not well." Asking such questions puts the recipient in an awkward position, forcing him to conceal his true feelings.