Handling Grief at Work: What You Should--and Shouldn't--Say
I'm rarely at a loss for words, but I'm often at a loss for the right words. That is especially true when someone I know professionally has just passed away.
While through a business relationship I may have known the deceased fairly well, I often don't know the people closest to the deceased at all. That sometimes results in me stammering a few platitudes because I haven't thought through what I want to say... at the precise moment when saying the right thing is incredibly important.
Here's an example. A member of a crew I supervised passed away. I met his wife for the first time at his funeral. I introduced myself and could tell she was glad I came. Too bad I hadn't thought through what I would say.
"Your husband was a great guy," I said. She nodded appreciatively. Then I said, "There's no way we can ever replace him."
Her face fell.
In my mind I was saying he was both an awesome person and an awesome worker. I was saying we would truly miss him, both professionally and personally. To her it sounded like I only cared that his death created an opening I had to fill. She didn't say it, but her thoughts were written all over her face: "I appreciate the fact he was important at work--but he was infinitely more important at home."
In business, everyone can be replaced. No matter how seemingly irreplaceable, any employee can be replaced: me, you, everyone. We would move on.
She would not move on. Her husband, the man she had built her life with, could never be replaced.
And my words had done nothing to console or comfort her. In fact, my words had done less than nothing: I had made her feel worse on what was already the worst day of her life.
Maybe you've done the same thing; unwittingly, unintentionally, but still.
In his book "Perfecting Your Pitch: How to Succeed in Business and in Life by Finding Words That Work," Ronald M. Shapiro describes what happened when Geaton DeCesaris, the husband of JoAnn DeCesaris, passed away after a three-year battle with cancer.
Shapiro describes how JoAnn found some of the things people said more upsetting than comforting, like:
"It's good to see you." This was the most common phrase JoAnn heard from acquaintances she had not seen recently. It caused her to focus on their absence during her husband's cancer rather than their attendance at his funeral.
"I know how you feel." Regardless of the person's relationship with her husband or the person's life situation, comparing that experience to her own unique feelings did nothing to alleviate JoAnn's pain.
"God has a plan." This was the initial thought she had when her husband was diagnosed, and by the time of her husband's funeral it had become redundant and infuriating.
"I just didn't want to see him suffer." This sounded to JoAnn more like an excuse for not visiting her husband than a genuine offer of condolence.
"He was my best friend." JoAnn questioned why the people claiming to be her husband's best friends did not come and support him when he needed them most.
Each was a well-intentioned expression of condolence but each was also, however unintentionally, unsettling or even hurtful.
Still, some condolences she received were genuinely thoughtful and comforting. One, from a close friend of her husband's, expressed grief and genuine support:
"JoAnn, I'm sorry for your loss. Geaton helped me stay positive when I faced adversity in my personal life and I will never forget it. I want you to know I am here to offer the same support to you and your family."
Another, from one of her daughter's high school teachers, recognized accomplishments that would continue after his death:
"I'm sorry for your loss. He must have been a great father to raise such strong daughters."
Shapiro writes, "There is no exact calculus of comfort for the bereaved, but thinking in advance about what to say can bring you closer to providing the comforting words that someone in JoAnn's circumstance needs. Choosing words artfully does not deflate expressions of concern; rather, it supports the objective of comforting others."
Which, of course, is what it's all about.
So what could I have said? After expressing my sorry for her loss, here are some possibilities:
"He was a great guy. I will really miss him." Simple, to the point, and lets her know I cared about him as a person and not just an employee. We all hope our loved ones will be missed--that means they made a significant impact on other people.
"I could always count on him to tell me what I needed to hear... even if I didn't want to hear it." Her husband had an innate feel for the concerns of the people around him, and would step up to ask questions or raise issues when others hesitated. He had a reputation for being brutally honest, and I know she would have appreciated hearing someone valued that quality in him because that was a big part of who he really was.
"If you ever need help working through benefits or insurance issues, call me. Any time. I will help you in any way I can." The thought of dealing with practical matters like survivor benefits, health and life insurance, assistance programs, and other company programs had to be overwhelming. She may not have even known where to start. By offering to be her advocate I could have relieved some of that anxiety and worry.
But I didn't. Shame on me.
Next time--because, unfortunately, there will always eventually be a next time--I will take the time to think it through so I can offer words of real comfort to a person desperately in need of comfort.
That's the least I--and you--can do.