Career Matters

By Lily Whiteman

More suggestions for bereavement help

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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.

When colleague experiences loss, extend your support quickly

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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.