Sooner or later, just about every office is touched by a death in the family of a staff member. My Aug. 8 column provided tips on how to handle this type of sad situation. Here are more tips:
• Express sympathy only if you are certain a colleague has already been informed of his loss. You could, for example, learn of your colleague’s loss before he does if you receive the news via a potentially fast information channel, such as Facebook, rather than a slower and more formal information channel that is carrying the news to him. Deaths that occur overseas and therefore involve varying time zones, geographical distance and potential chain-of-command mix-ups may be particularly prone to such communication problems.
• If one of your colleagues or subordinates becomes overwrought after being informed of a major loss and you know that he is about to go home to an empty house, consider accompanying him, recruiting someone else to do so, or encouraging the bereaved person to arrange for a friend or relative to be with him.
• If you supervise someone who experiences a major loss, encourage him to take care of himself and, if he takes time off from work, tell him not to worry about work while he is gone. Then, when the bereaved person returns to work, go easy on him by putting him on the functional equivalent of “light duty” — don’t nag him about deadlines, guilt-trip him about what he missed during his absence or immediately heap work on him. If you are a friend or close colleague, offer to take some responsibilities off his hands, if possible and appropriate.
• When a newly bereaved person returns to the office after taking time off, don’t treat him like a pariah or show a “deer in the headlights” expression the first time you encounter him. Instead, acknowledge your colleague’s return with sensitivity. If you haven’t expressed sympathy, remember that it is never too late to do so.
If you have expressed sympathy, gently acknowledge your colleague’s return with a hug, if appropriate, and a comment, such as “I am glad you were able to return.” And never greet a returning bereaved person with an excited “welcome back!” as if he had just returned from Disneyland.
• If you have a collegial relationship with a bereaved person who has just returned to the office, offer to take him out to lunch yourself or with a few other colleagues. But when you invite him, assure him that if he is not yet ready for such interaction, he can take a rain check when he is feeling better.
• Don’t discuss with a bereaved person aspects of your life that would emphasize to him the magnitude of his loss. For example, if your colleague lost a child, don’t brandish photographs or screen savers of your children. Also, don’t bring up your children in conversations, including updates on how well or how poorly they are doing, how excited you are about their impending homecoming or what nice thing they recently did or didn’t do for you. How long should you avoid such topics? Maybe forever.
• If appropriate, organize your colleagues to provide practical support to your bereaved colleague. For example, I know a government employee who unexpectedly lost her teenage son in a freak traffic accident. Understandably, the bereaved mother and her family were somewhat emotionally incapacitated for some time after their loss. So the bereaved mother’s workmates — a close-knit group — alternated bringing dinner to the bereaved family for the month following their loss. Alternatively, arrange for food to be delivered or purchase a gift card for take-out from an appealing eatery for the bereaved family.
• Remember that loss is permanent. This means that when your bereaved colleague returns to work and for long after, he may look and act fine without really being fine inside. What’s more, after his initial grieving ends, he probably won’t receive much further attention or sympathy.
So as time passes, try to gauge how your bereaved colleague is doing and whether he seems to want to talk about his loss. If you sense he wants to talk, continue to ask how he and his family are doing.