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Thursday, May 29, 2008

What to Say When a Colleagues' Family Member Dies

This is fairly off topic for this blog, but this is something that's come up several times recently for me, and I've struggled with it each time. This morning I received a note from a colleague to tell me that their mother died last night and that they couldn't do our scheduled call. I'm always at a loss as to what to say ...

I honestly sat in front of the email this morning trying to figure out what I should be saying. And I rewrote the email a bunch of times. I never felt the words in the email were the right words.

I'm generally okay with saying something about being sorry for their loss (and I truly am). If I know them well enough to know whether they are religious, I will sometimes say that they are in my family's prayers (and they truly are). I wish there was a non-religious way to say the same thing, but I don't know the equivalent.

But those one or two sentences seem inappropriately short given the magnitude of the situation. Maybe it's good to be short? Still it feels hollow.

And I struggled even more with whether to say and what to say about the work / scheduled call. Do you mention anything about it? I wanted to say that our discussions could hold until ???? But it seems wrong to even include that message in the same note. It felt like a rounding error on the important part of the message.

And if you do say something about holding, what's the end of that sentence?

Until you get back? <- Not quite right. It could hold longer if they need it.

Until things return to normal? <- Ouch. No. That's definitely not right.

Until ???

I'm sure that many other people face this same issue. I would appreciate any suggestions, especially sample emails / wording that you would or have used in this kind of situation.


Anonymous said...

Instead of "prayers," the word "thoughts" works very well. (As a non-Christian myself, that's what I say and what I would appreciate hearing.) For rescheduling the call, I would make it a separate email, and use the phrasing "When you are ready,..."

Anonymous said...

Hi Tony

I too am never sure what to say

My experience is that the person offering their sympathy is much more concerned about the actual words than the person who has experienced the loss. The expression of sympathy is what is valued.

I think Gretchen makes good points.

I enjoy your blog. Keep up the great work. It is valued.

Joe Wehr

bill7tx said...

I try to say something based on what I know about the person and about the one who died. Most of the time, that's not difficult. Having a lot of experience myself with loss of friends and loved ones through death, I keep it simple and brief.

I usually ask whether there's a donation I could make in the name of their departed. Donations last longer than flowers, and they keep the person's name and memory alive.

Anything said about prayers depends on what I know about their beliefs. The most I am likely to say along religious lines otherwise comes from St. Augustine: "Our loved ones only go from us to God, and God is very near."

I never bring up business. Like Gretchen, it seems to me that's a separate communication.

V Yonkers said...

While I hate to say it, a colleague who has lost someone really could care less about your words (unless you are a friend), and rather would like to know that things will go on without them. Having lost my father when I was 26, I just wanted people to validate that I had lost someone close to me (as opposed to those that just ignore it and carry on).

As a result, the note should be short but reassuring that the business can be handled without the colleague. If it is something that is critical, putting the call "on hold" might be more stressful for the colleague. I would instead (in the same e-mail) mention how you will proceed (i.e. I will contact your assistant to reschedule the call...or I will contact (your boss, colleague, someone else that can handle the matter) and make arrangements to complete (or decide or take over) the (work, project, etc...).

On the other hand, if the matter is not urgent, I would just mention that you will e-mail the person later in the week (or next week). This way, you are not mixing business with your condolences, but rather putting their mind at rest that this is something that need not be worried about.

Stephen Downes said...

"I'm generally okay with saying something about being sorry for their loss (and I truly am). If I know them well enough to know whether they are religious, I will sometimes say that they are in my family's prayers (and they truly are). I wish there was a non-religious way to say the same thing, but I don't know the equivalent."

Just say:

You say (sincerely): I'm sorry for your loss. She will be in our thoughts. Please let me know if there's anything I can do.

They say: (mumbled thanks)

You say: I'll give you a call next week and we can reschedule the meaning whenever you're ready.

They say: OK, thanks.

The point here is to give them a way to respond automatically, without putting any thought into it, because that's probably all they're capable of at the moment, and all they are inclined to do in any case.

Falkayn said...

I think these suggestions are good ones, especially downes'. At the end of the day they'll want to know you recognised their loss, even if you didn't feel it (not knowing the person).

When you next meet you might want to be alert to giving them space to talk about it, but also be prepared for them to want to just get on with business. I don't think canned words can help, it's your attitude that matters.

BTW, great blog! Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the community.

Tony Karrer said...

Thanks all for the suggestions.

I must say that I disagree with the sentiment that "I don't think canned words can help" ... I'm not asking for "canned words" but I'm feeling that anything I say is not quite right ...

So getting feedback from folks and specific language suggestions from Gretchen, Bill, Virginia and Stephen really are quite helpful.

I'm not going to say it if I don't actually mean it (not really canned) ... but seeing how others would phrase it is actually quite good.

In fact, I've built more than one performance support tool based on this kind of support - helping with communications.

Thanks all for these suggestions. I wish I had them this morning before I sent my email, but I'm very glad to know that I have them now.

Falkayn said...

@Tony, sorry about that, I didn't mean to suggest that you were trying to use "canned words", I was more covering up my own inability to come up with anything more specific in terms of advice.

Tony Karrer said...

@Falkyn - No need to say sorry. I do understand what you mean about "canned words" that lack any actual meaning or attachment of meaning to the words. You DO have to feel the way the words say. And Stephen's words line up very well with how I was feeling at the time.

There is definitely danger around canned words, and I've always been somewhat suspicious of greeting cards.

Clark said...

Tony, you've gotten some great advice, and I like the way you started it off.

So, something along the lines of "my/our deepest sympathies". And offering to help: "if there's anything I/we can do to help, let us know".

One thing I've heard to add here is if you knew the person, say something positive about them "I always remember [something positive]".

And I *would* address the work: "You take the time you need, we'll be fine; let us know when you're ready".

It's not 'canned', but it's thoughtful to hit the important elements. I also like Stephen's point to make it as easy to respond as possible.

Anonymous said...

I can speak to this from recent experience. I lost two close family members within a month last fall and I should have let me professional life grind to a halt. On my end, it was hard having to cancel meetings, rearrange appointments, and extend deadlines. I didn't want to share my personal issues with clients and thus let them think that personal issues were going to affect my work. So I was vague.

In retrospect, I should have been more honest. Those professional colleagues with which I did share my loss said exactly the right thing, which mirrors what Clark had to say:
"I'm so sorry for your loss. Take the time you need and let us know when you're ready to continue."

Addressing the work was necessary, for both me and the client, but they also made sure I knew that at that point, deadlines were truly arbitrary.

Blogger In Middle-earth said...

@Tony - You have obviously got a lot of support here in your loss, for something to say that is.

I concur with Gretchen with her use of 'thoughts', for it covers prayers without suggesting religion. I agree with Downes too - a sincere gesture to offer assistance if needed shows you truly care.

I too am often at a loss in these situations, but I understand your diffidence to mention anything about 'work' or the related schedules, for that's really inappropriate and what's more it may well be irrelevant to the one who has suffered the loss.

Given the thought you put into saying what you eventually decided to, I don't think there would be any doubt that you would be received as having empathy for your colleague.

Ka kite

Tony Karrer said...

Clark - like the suggestions.

Michelle - I'm glad you chimed in from that perspective. I have a tendency to hold back on these kinds of things. But when you notice that each person who responded to this understands the gravity of the situation - it makes you realize that sharing is most likely the right way to go. Still it would have been hard for me without this input.

@middle-earth - Funny - I'm not sure that sitting on the other side of an email you can always tell what the person means. Do they really think that it's okay for the work to wait? Or am I just saying that? That's the concern for me - email (written words) is so often a terrible communication medium.

Look at the exchange above around "canned words" ... in conversation that doesn't cause a problem.

Uh oh, I'm ranting and rambling. :)