Someone has died, and you want to do something to show their family that you care. Maybe they're far away and you can't make it to the funeral, or maybe you can attend services but you still want to do something extra. What is a good sympathy gift to send?
I asked Legacy's readers what they send when friends are grieving, or what sympathy gifts were especially appreciated when they themselves were grieving. Their answers ranged from traditional to innovative, and they had some great ideas to share about what kinds of gifts are helpful and meaningful in the wake of a death. Here's what they had to say.
Bringing food after a death is a tradition that reaches far back in history. It makes so much sense. In the days when a family is dealing with funeral planning and all the organizational tasks that must be done after a death, they're very busy. They're grieving on top of that, and the combination of the two can make it nearly impossible to find the time, energy, and desire to feed oneself, let alone a family. Friends and neighbors often help out by filling the family's fridge with meals.
"I have to say you can't beat food. Even if you don't live close enough to bring over a tray of cookies or a casserole, you can deliver Chicago deep-dish pizzas almost anywhere. If you want something more homey, I've found chicken soup delivery companies and cookie delivery companies."
But sending fresh food that needs to be eaten quickly isn't always the best choice. Families can become overwhelmed by the sheer volume of food in the fridge, and it can go to waste if they're not able to eat all of it within a week or so. One solution offered by lots of readers was restaurant gift cards.
"My mom’s work took a collection and sent the family gift cards to some of her favorite restaurants and honestly, it saved us! We would just pick the food up and have something delicious and easy for whatever family member was at my grandma’s that night. And we could use it whenever the fridge was empty - even weeks later! It seems silly, but that just made the biggest difference!"
A gift basket of non-perishable snacks is another option. If this can be delivered in time for the visitation, it can provide much-needed support for families spending long hours receiving friends. After the funeral, it's useful at home for someone who can't even find the energy to warm up food. Kid-friendly snacks come in handy for families with small children before, during, and after the funeral.
"When my father-in-law died, some of my sister-in-law's friends/co-workers sent a big basket of snack items directly to the funeral home for us so it was there in the family area during the visitation, etc. It was very much appreciated. It was a very long day (I think my FIL knew everyone in a four-state area based on the number of people who came to the visitation) and nice to be able to send the kids back for snacks. We certainly wouldn't have thought to bring some with us. It was such a great idea that I know we've done similar things for some funerals since."
Several readers talked about the relief they got after friends sent them gift cards for self-care activities like massages. Grief is incredibly stressful, and that can create physical tension and pain. A gift card for a massage or spa is a way to show you understand that and to encourage your friend to take care of themselves.
"After Daddy died and even my eyeballs hurt with grief, a friend made every arrangement for me to have a massage the day after the funeral. It was so restorative that I swore that's what I would give friends instead of sending flowers."
If you're a practical-minded person, you might want to send a gift that's going to be incredibly useful to a grieving family. Thank-you cards and stamps were mentioned by several readers — the bereaved will certainly need to send thank-you notes, and you can help eliminate some stress by providing those necessary items.
"After my Dad died, a good friend sent a gift box from a small specialty gift company and the best item was pre-printed acknowledgement cards. Essentially they read, 'You may have sent flowers, a card, etc., and we appreciate thinking of our family in this difficult time.' They were awesome because all we had to do was sign the cards and address the envelopes. It made reaching out to our family and friends to acknowledge their kindness simple. We talked about how convenient those cards were for weeks."
Other practical gifts include offers of help – an afternoon helping address envelopes for thank-you cards might be a load off a grieving person's mind. Maybe an older widow can use help with lawn care or snow removal. Families with young children may need child care as they deal with funeral planning logistics.
"One friend arranged to stay at my house during the services. Apparently obituaries are a good source of information for criminals - they know it's likely that no one will be at home while everyone is at the funeral home or church."
Some of the most practical gifts aren't particularly romantic, but they're a huge help. In the midst of grieving, families might not even realize what kinds of household items they'll need to get through the coming days.
"When my stepmother died, someone brought a giant package of toilet paper, which I thought was wise, since they had a lot of visitors and dad wasn’t up for grocery shopping."
A popular choice among readers was a decorative gift, perhaps with a special message about grief and loss. You can often find these at flower shops and boutiques, and they might have a selection of grief-related poems and sayings that can be engraved or included in a card. Several readers mentioned wind chimes specifically, as well as garden statuary or plaques.
"In the last couple of years, I’ve given a seashell necklace (included a card that said “Seashells remind us that every passing life leaves something beautiful behind”), wind chimes, and angel gifts. Something personal."
Creative crafters have come up with a number of methods to remember a loved one by repurposing an item of clothing or funeral flowers. Clothing can be used to make pillowcases, memory quilts, and much more. Funeral flowers can be turned into bracelets or necklaces. Readers who mentioned gifts like this found it especially touching that a gift was made from something that might otherwise have been donated or gone to waste.
"I had my dad's ties turned into picture frames. And for Catholics, there is an order of nuns in the Chicago suburbs who will turn your funeral flowers into rosaries by drying the petals and compressing them into beads. It works best with rose petals."
Handwriting is often incredibly distinctive, and seeing a loved one's handwriting after their death can bring memories flooding back. A sample of that handwriting can be turned into a deeply personal remembrance.
"Not necessarily a sympathy gift for right after someone passes, but a piece of jewelry with their loved one's handwriting on it. My best friend and her grandfather used to write letters to each other so when he passed away I got her a custom necklace with her name in his hand writing on one side and then his signature ("Love, Poppop") on the other side. She loved it."
Expenses related to death and dying can be overwhelming for some people. You might decide that the best use of your money is not to send a gift, but to simply send the money.
"Honestly... just funds in general. Knowing that I wasn't going to have to worry about money helped so much, I live paycheck to paycheck and taking that worry away helped me not have a panic attack every day."
Some readers insisted that the most meaningful things they received after a death didn't cost any money. Instead, they were notes, check-in calls, and time spent together. It's incredibly meaningful to write a note to a grieving friend with your own memories of their loved one.
"The one thing I try to do, if I knew the deceased, is send a card and include a few specific, special memories to make them laugh and/or to let them know some of the wonderful things that their loved one did."
In the days and weeks after the funeral, grievers can feel like they're totally alone. It's worth it to check in, perhaps in a low-key manner that doesn't make them feel like they must answer the phone or compose a cheerful reply immediately. A text message as simple as a quick "I love you" can make a big difference.
"It would be so thoughtful for you to put a reminder on your calendar for two months out to check on her. There is a lot of activity right when something happens, but then people get back to their regular lives."
Grief can be isolating, and time spent with friends can be one of the most important gifts a griever can receive. Offering activities — without pressure for someone who might not feel up for it — is a thoughtful gesture.
"A big thing is to stay in touch! While everyone else returns to the life they had before, your life has changed forever. Don't forget that we want to still be included in dinners and parties and conversations. It hurts a lot to find out that the couples group went to dinner, but since you're no longer a 'couple' you were left out."
Photos are almost universally treasured after a death. Looking at a loved one's image in a frame or photo album helps bring us back to good times we shared. You can offer support to a grieving friend with a gift of old favorite photos. Maybe they're beautifully framed, or maybe you create a special memorial photo album with a number of photos.
"One of my cousins somehow regularly finds a picture of my mom and gives it to me. The last one was a picture of my mom taken in 1989. Her picture sits on top of a box in my kitchen, leaning against the wall so I see her every time I go through the kitchen."
Flowers are popular sympathy gifts, of course, because they add color and beauty to the funeral service, and they can then be brought home as a comforting reminder of the support of friends. They're easy to order online or by phone, and they can be shipped directly to the funeral service or family even if you can't be at the funeral. But if you don't want to send a bouquet, many flower providers also offer potted plants, which can be a longer-lasting remembrance.
"I love the three plants we received when my grandma, grandpa, and uncle passed away. I swear they all have their own personalities that match the person for whom they honor. My papa’s plant likes to be cozy near the fireplace, my uncle’s likes to be close to the bar in the house and my nana’s likes to be in the kitchen (not helping but being nosy). It’s oddly comforting."
Many readers mentioned a touching alternative to flowers or indoor plants: a memorial tree or garden plant. Perennials like rosemary (the traditional plant representing remembrance) can beautify a gardener's land, and a memorial tree can stay with a family for a generation or more. If you're thinking about this option, make sure you're sending something that's suited for the climate where it will live, and that the family is prepared to deal with planting a perennial or a tree.
"A neighbor planted a tree in our yard while we were at our father’s funeral. Growing up we called it Dad’s tree. It is now very large and provided a shady place to read in the summer."
Several readers offered unusual examples of very special gifts they've sent to grieving friends. These might not be right for just everyone, but for the right person, they're perfect. It's okay to get creative as you're thinking about what to send after a death. Here are a few suggestions from our readers… perhaps they'll spark your own unique idea.
"When my dad died, my friend sent me a Build A Bear. It was one of the best things I got. I was 35 years old and someone sent me a stuffed animal. I loved it."
"I have a student whose sister died. I named a star after her and then framed the certificate. The whole family loved it. I gifted it specifically because I know my student would want something tangible but also was a 10-year-old kid who'd lose/break/not understand a lot of typical gifts. You can't lose or break a star."
"When my dad died, my cousin sent me a gorgeous amethyst stone. It's a natural, large one like from a crystal place, and it's for healing energy. It's beautiful & I every time I see it or touch it, it reminds me of her & him. It calms me."
"I'm Catholic so for close friends/family, my mother buys a priest vestment and has it embroidered with the name/birth date/date of passing of the deceased. It's displayed at the wake and then she sends it to a parish in need (she's sent to the Philippines and Nicaragua in the past, currently she's looking for a parish in Mexico to send my uncle's to) where it will be worn often. It's always something unique at the wake and the family loves knowing that masses are being said in the deceased's memory every time it's worn."