The Etiquette of Sympathy: When a Colleague or Client Suffers a Loss

The Etiquette of Sympathy: When a Colleague or Client Suffers a Loss

When a colleague, co-worker or business associate loses a family member, do you find yourself stuck on the etiquette of sympathy? Do you wonder how you should handle this kind of situation? Do you worry that you will use the wrong words or that you will intrude on the other person’s grief?

As a result, how often have you ended up not doing or saying anything and later regretting it?

When someone you work with suffers a loss, the kindest thing you can do is to acknowledge the event and show that you care. It is just as important to show your sorrow in a business relationship as it is in a personal one. Don’t withhold your support because you are uncomfortable. It’s not about you.

When you see the family, don’t be afraid to mention the name of the deceased. In spite of what you may think, this doesn’t make people feel any worse. You are honoring their loss.

Acknowledge all the family members. Introduce yourself and spend time with them, not just the people you know. No one should have to guess who you are and what your connection is to their loss. Be prepared to introduce yourself and explain your relation to the deceased.

Share your fondest memories of the deceased with the family. This is a time when people need to hear stories about the person they have just lost. Laughter and happy stories are healing and are in no way disrespectful to anyone.

It is not unusual to go the funeral or visitation when you did not know the person who died. You are going for your colleague or friend, the survivor, who is suffering.

Be prepared to listen. The bereaved relative may want to share feelings. A lengthy verbal response from you is not required. All that is needed is an available ear and a sympathetic nod. It’s all right to say, “How are you feeling?” When you do, be sure you listen for the answer.

Attend the service if you can, no matter what is on your schedule. It is comforting for family to see the people who care about their loss.

Write a note of condolence in addition to attending the service. People will keep those handwritten expressions of sympathy and treasure them for many years.

Whatever you do, don’t send your sympathy via e-mail unless you are in Outer Mongolia and that is your only option. Electronic mail lacks the personal touch that this painful time deserves.

Offer to help in whatever way you can in order to leave the family free to grieve. The most mundane chores like walking the dog or mowing the grass can be a tremendous help.

Once the funeral is over, stay in touch. Reaching out as time goes by can be more meaningful than your initial response at the time of the death.

Forget what people say about a year of grief-grief lasts longer than a year. Mark the date of the death on your calendar. Call, visit or send a note on the anniversary of the loss.

Part of building business relationships can be sharing the saddest of times. If you know what is expected, you will be more confident and more likely to do what serves others best.