There are a number of ways to give condolences to someone who has experienced the death of a loved one, depending on the nature of the relationship to the mourner and the person's geographical proximity. Condolences of any form are usually greatly appreciated by the mourner and his or her family.
The traditional way to give condolences in many cultures is to send a card or letter with a few condolence phrases, expressing dismay upon learning of the death of the deceased, and the writer's hope that family members are doing as well as they can be, under the circumstances. It is traditional to address a condolence letter to the head of a household, although the writer may also send individual condolences to people in the family whom he or she knows closely. As a general rule, a blank card should be used, rather than a pre-printed card, and the theme of the card should be somber.
In the modern era, some people like to send condolences by email. Many etiquette mavens frown upon this, however, as email has a very casual feel. Written condolences should be handwritten on a card, rather than being sent electronically, even if the sentiments are exactly the same in both cases.
Condolence calls are also traditional. In many societies, the mourners hold an open house after the death specifically for the purpose of condolence calls, allowing people to drop by to give their condolences in person. Some people like to bring food, flowers, and other gifts on a condolence call to express their support for the mourners. In the case of Jewish mourners, a period of mourning known as a shiva is held for a week after the death to allow visitors a chance to drop by and visit with the family while the family processes its grief.
Those who are too far away to visit in person but who still want to express their condolences can also call the mourners on the telephone. It's important for individuals to be aware that phone calls are sometimes considered disruptive, as they can interrupt funeral arrangements or prevent members of the family from reaching the mourners. When someone does decide call, he or she should be aware that the phone may also be answered by a friend who is handling calls for the family, rather than one of the mourners directly.
If an individual has been invited to attend the funeral, it is also appropriate for him or her to give condolences at that time. Many people also like to express condolences when they see the mourner for the first time after the death, whether or not they have sent a card. A grieving coworker, for example, many appreciate an offer of condolences upon returning to work, just as a mourner may be glad to hear from a friend when he or she is spotted on the street or in the supermarket.