When colleague experiences loss, extend your support quickly


What should you do when one of your colleagues has a death in their family? My personal experiences following my own losses and the experiences of bereaved feds with whom I have worked have taught me much about how to respond sensitively and helpfully to a colleague’s loss.

The first thing to remember is that the period following a loss is usually a pivotal time for a bereaved person; your response to a colleague’s loss during this period may leave a deep, indelible impression on him. One fed put it this way: “A death in the family rearranges your Rolodex. It shows you who your friends are and aren’t.”

Therefore, if you care about your relationship with a bereaved colleague, you would be wise to support them.

Some ways to do so:

  •  If your colleague must leave the office after being notified at work of a loss, help him get out quickly. Help him pack up work materials to bring with him, notify other colleagues of meetings or deadlines that he will miss or pinch-hit for him in ongoing projects.

If your colleague must suddenly leave town to attend a funeral, help make his travel arrangements. Learn about bereavement airfares.

Also, if your colleague is overwrought by his loss, don’t let him drive himself anywhere from the office. Instead, drive him to his local destination or arrange for a taxi to do so.

Alternatively, if your colleague opts to keep working after being notified of a loss, you may gently remind him of his right to take leave for the death of a family member. But if your colleague decides to keep working anyway, don’t pressure him to do otherwise, and respect his decision to stay — even if you would do differently in his shoes.

  • Find the obituary of your colleague’s relative in the newspaper or on the Internet. If the obituary identifies a preferred charity for donations, organize — or delegate another colleague to organize — an officewide donation to the preferred charity, or arrange to send him flowers.

If you have your own established friendship with your colleague, consider going beyond the officewide gesture. For example, you may give your own charity donation, send him your own card or other appropriate gift, such as a relevant book of poetry, or bring food to your colleague’s home.

Remember, speed counts in crises. Whatever gesture you or your office decide to extend to your colleague, extend it quickly. I know, for example, a fed who was notified at work of the shocking, unexpected death of a young member of her family. After seeing her upset, one of her colleagues immediately bought a sympathy card at a nearby store and put it in her mailbox even before she had enough time to pack up and leave the office. She says, “I will never forget my colleague’s kindness.”

  • Consider expressing your sympathy to your colleague in person soon after you learn about his loss. People often shy away from such face-to-face conversations for fear that they will be awkward or upset the bereaved person. But the suffering of a bereaved person should always trump other people’s desire to ignore it because of their own comparatively slim discomfort. And remember: Failing to acknowledge another person’s deep loss is the emotional equivalent of stepping over the bloodied body of a fallen colleague without helping him in some way.

What’s more, it is unlikely that a thoughtful expression of sympathy will ever “remind” a bereaved person of their loss because, in most cases, a deeply bereaved person is preoccupied with their loss even without anyone acknowledging it to them. And in the unlikely event that your colleague breaks down after you express sympathy, your colleague will probably still appreciate your thoughtfulness.

If you really don’t want to express sympathy to your bereaved colleague in person, be sure to send him a sympathy card.


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  1. Very wise and important advice. However, let me add one comment based upon personal experience–please make sure that the person has received the notification of the loss prior to expressing sympathy. While stationed overseas, my step-daughter was murdered and the only notification was sent by the Red Cross to my job. It arrived 4 days after the death. Everyone in my office assumed that we already knew of the death, but we knew absolutely nothing and my husband’s family in the States knew nothing. When I arrived at work, management had already sent an email throughout the office about the loss, copies of the newspaper article were printed out with others reading it, and a co-worker was on the phone expressing condolences to my husband who had no idea that his daughter was dead. Needless to say, my husband was extremely distraught and fortunately I was able to contact a neighbor who stayed with him until I could rush home and then do all of the arrangements for the trip to the States and also for the funeral.

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