It’s weird when a colleague suffers a personal tragedy. It’s like crossing the streams in GHOSTBUSTERS—the professional and the personal mix, and you’re never quite sure what to do. Or if some terrifying monster might appear if you say he wrong thing.
When death is involved, it’s some how worse. As a culture, death isn’t a subject we handle very well to begin with — we prefer to deny and avoid, as if by pretending death doesn’t happen, we won’t catch it. As if death is some how a personal failure, a lack of good faith effort. We will all have family and friends that die as we move through our life, some quite close. And of course, each of us will die one day, too. Yet, like toddlers, we think if we don’t see it, it can’t see us…
As bad as we are at finding the right things to say in our personal lives (subject of another post), we are that much worse with knowing what to say to someone we know only professionally. Even if we are quite friendly, or have known them for many years, the sudden intrusion of such a personal thing as grief makes us very uncomfortable when it happens to someone we interact with from 8 to 5 on weekdays.
So here’s a helpful tip if you find yourself in the situation of knowing someone in your professional sphere who has suffered a personal loss:
Just effing say something.
You don’t have to have the right words—because believe me, there are no right words—but you need to acknowledge that they have had something incredibly shitty happen that has completely upended their life.
“I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”
That’s it. That’s all you have to say. No one expects more of you. Most likely, the grieving person won’t want to discuss the loss in a business setting (because, tears) so you’re off the hook for any expectations of deep emotional support.
Because believe me, your silence hurts. I was sitting in a business meeting at the moment my son died, and not one of those people has ever even acknowledged my loss. Call me petty, but I’m not exactly inspired to work on their business any more.
I don’t expect them to be as lovely as the clients who sent flowers to the funeral, and cards, and who pulled me into an office the next time they saw me and cried. (This was the majority of clients, by the way). Or as thoughtful as the past coworkers who showed up at the funeral. Or as amazing as my current coworkers, who made sure I didn’t have to think about work at all, and who have been a source of much strength and comfort. That level of kindness is a grace, and so very humbling and appreciated.
But you know what? I do expect that if I’ve worked with you for many years, you could at least say, “I’m so sorry to hear about your loss.”
Because last time I checked, I’m a human being. And so are you.