Etiquette expert Catherine Newman on when to send thank you notes.

Credit: Gemma Comas and James Merrell

Q. Do I need to send thank-you notes to people who sent sympathy cards after the passing of my mother?

Name withheld by request

A. Oh, I am sorry for your loss. Traditional etiquette does dictate that you send notes in response to condolence cards, and if you are able to, you should. The briefest line or two—“Thank you for the kind note of sympathy. It meant so much to me”—in a handwritten note or even a preprinted card will acknowledge the support that you’ve received and the gratitude that you feel, as well as offering consolation, in return, to those close to your mother who may be experiencing their own grief.

What’s more, writing those cards can turn out to be a meaningful act, even beyond the conventions of courtesy. Many people find that pausing to read and respond to the cards they’ve received can be therapeutic: a time to mourn, to reminisce, and, as you are reminded of all the people who care about you, to count your blessings.

However, if you are just too devastated to muster the courage or energy to face a stack of stationery, then go ahead and skip it. This is a moment for your friends and family to practice compassion. True sympathy means respecting the grieving process, selflessly and without expectation.

—Catherine Newman