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GUEST ARTICLE
Bereavement Etiquette: How to Handle Personal Loss in the Workplace
March 2008

Bereavement Etiquette: How to Handle Personal Loss in the Workplace
By Colleen A. Rickenbacher, CMP, CSEP, CPC

Unfortunately death impacts us all and everyone has his or her own way of handling the loss of a loved one. At the same time, it can be hard for people to know what to do to comfort a family member, friend or a co-worker who has experienced a loss. People generally send a sympathy card or flowers to a funeral but others feel uncomfortable seeing this person and knowing what to say or do.

Susan unexpectedly lost her husband after he suffered a heart attack. He left behind his wife of 27 years and three grown children. As a colleague, friend or neighbor, what can you do in this situation to express your own grief and sympathy? How do you help Susan and her family? If you were in the same situation, what would you do?

Cards and Donations:

– Depending on your relationship with the family, at the very least, you should send a sympathy card as soon as possible. Write a brief note telling what Sam meant to you. A short personal remembrance, or even a funny story or a time together will help the family treasure your friendship and possibly even help them smile during this difficult situation. A short note of “my thoughts and prayers are with you and the family” is appreciated, if your relationship to the family was more formal. Avoid just signing your name.

– Identify yourself on the card and always include a legible return address. This will help if the family would like to send you a thank you card or note. Susan will appreciate your card but may have no idea who you are or what your relationship is to Sam or the family.

– Even if time has passed and you are just hearing of the passing of Sam, you should still contact the family or send a card. If more than four to six months have passed, send a “thinking of you” card instead of a sympathy card.

Flowers, Food and Gifts:

– Flowers: Do you send them, if so, what kind? Are there any alternatives? Flowers are beautiful but can also be very sad. Fresh flowers die within three to seven days and a lot of people relate those back to the death of their loved one. Also, they need to tend to them or they will die even sooner. Consider potted plants instead. Potted plants can live a much longer life and provide a good memory to the recipient.

– There are also blankets or tapestries available in some areas, with artwork of an angel or religious scene. These make not only beautiful presents, but can be displayed at the funeral home or church on an easel, to be taken home by the family later. These throws can serve as a beautiful reminder of the loved one. Check with your florist for these blankets or tapestries.

– Masses or flowers for the church, money given to the church or other organizations or charities, and money given to the family is always appreciated and easy to do. The funeral home is always a good starting point for direction on what the family might like or need. They are generally informed of all of the family’s wishes. Ask the director for help, as this makes it easier and less stressful on the family to have to explain or provide the details.

– Sam’s office is at a loss and would like to either make a donation or send flowers. As quickly as possible determine if there is a charitable organization, memorable fund or college fund for the two children. This information could appear in the daily newspaper or you can contact the funeral home.

– Food for the family: Yes, but spread it out. Too many times the family receives so much food initially that they have to give it away or throw it away. Consider providing food that they can freeze or provide them with dinner at a later point. Usually as a bit of time passes, it is easier for the family to talk with you and even remember times you spent together.

– Do not rush the family. If they don’t want to change their voicemail that still has Sam leaving the message, let them decide when they are ready. If they don’t want to come to dinner with you, then just wait. There does reach a time they do need to start moving on with their life, but initially it is best to give them their space. If they need or want you, they will call. Periodic checking with them to come by for a visit or offering to help is great, but don’t take it personally if they refuse. Everyone has their own time and way of handling their loss.

Handling a Personal Loss:

– Consult your funeral home director for help and assistance. The shock of your loss may make it difficult, to say the least, when it comes to organizing and preparing for this situation. The funeral home will be able to help you with any of your immediate and ongoing concerns.

– If you are trying to establish charitable funds or a trust fund, they can easily be created by calling your bank or the charitable recipient (American Heart Association, Ronald McDonald House, etc.). Ask the organization for immediate notification of the person/company and their donation. This will enable you to send a thank you note to them as soon as possible. Your funeral home director can also be of assistance in setting up these funds. Once the funds are established, the funeral home can place cards next to the sign-in book.

– The need to write thank you notes may be the last thing on your mind after a loss. It can be a daunting task, but also a therapeutic one. Thank you notes should be sent for all items that money was spent by the sender, including any monetary contributions or donations, charitable gifts, flowers, masses, church services or meals. You should try and respond as quickly as you are able and within a three-month period.

– Thank you cards can be obtained from the funeral home and generally include a nicely printed message inside. These are great, but always add a handwritten note in addition to the pre-printed message. Then sign your name and reference from the “Family of Sam Jones.” Your note could be just to thank them for the gift and you know how much they enjoyed Sam or how he enjoyed them.

– If you want to can send thank you notes to everyone who attended the funeral, viewing or sent you a card, you can but are not obligated to do so. At times this becomes impossible due to the number of people who attended the services and also not actually knowing the people in attendance or their addresses.

– When you are ready to return to your work and people ask how you are doing you can share as little or as much as you like. Know your tolerance level and how far you can go without emotion taking over your conversation. You can even tell them that you would rather wait a little longer. They will understand.

– Don’t confuse concern with being nosy. Some people truly want to help and the only way they know is to call, e-mail or send you notes. Appreciate their gestures.

The passing of a loved one affects everyone differently. Some people recover quickly and have a way of handling their loss. Others may never completely recover. But no matter the circumstances, provide the grieving family with as much kindness, sympathy and fond memories as possible. ##

About the Author

Colleen A. Rickenbacher is a business etiquette expert and author of “Be on Your Best Business Behavior,” and the forthcoming, “Be on Your Best Cultural Behavior.” She helps clients stand out by improving manners, image and communication skills. With her past experience in event planning, as well as her skills in etiquette, Colleen helps companies such as FedEx, Microsoft and Marriott polish their image for increased profits. For information on her speaking, training or books, visit: www.colleenrickenbacher.com or call: 214-341-1677.


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