How to Offer Condolences to a Co-Worker Without Unintentionally Offending
No one likes to talk about it, but death and grieving are a real part of our lives that we all deal with at some point or another. People handle death and grief in different ways, and it can be confusing to know what to say and when to reach out.
It can be particularly awkward when someone you work with has lost a loved one, since the lines of intimacy are different than with family and close friends. In times of grief, you want to express your concern without saying the “wrong thing." Here are some of the lines that could be said better:
“He’s in a better place.”
The grieving person may not agree with you or want to think of their loved one in a different, albeit better, place. It’s better to keep it simple and say, “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
“At least he’s not suffering any more.”
This statement may be perceived as trite or insensitive. You may want to say, "Please know that I am thinking of you." Or if you feel comfortable, offer a warm hug instead.
“How are you?”
It can be difficult for someone to answer a specific question immediately after they have lost a loved one. Consider saying something like, “We’re glad to see you back at work. We’ve all been thinking of you.”
“Call me if there is anything I can do.”
People in grief are usually consumed with emotion, even if they don’t show it. Instead of asking them to make another decision, put yourself in their shoes. Consider what would make their lives easier in this time of grief and offer that specific service. For example, ask, “May I bring you dinner tomorrow night?” or “Would you like to go to lunch with me this week?” Even if the person turns down your offer, your kind friendship will be remembered and will mean more than you know.
“It’s God’s will.”
Often, people think that saying something Biblical is helpful, but it may not. If you are not sure if someone shares your religious views, tread softly with any religious-related comments. Instead, say something special about the deceased, like, “Mary was an extraordinary person and did so many good things for the community. She’ll surely be missed by many.”
“I know how you feel.”
There’s a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is when you understand and feel another’s feelings for yourself because you have experienced those feelings and can put yourself in their shoes. Sympathy is having compassion for a person; acknowledging their hardships and providing comfort and assurance. If you can relate in some way, you may want to briefly share your experience so the person knows you understand how they feel. However, keep the focus on their current loss.
“What really happened?”
Try not to ask too many questions about the details on the cause of death. Getting too personal can be intrusive. The person will share what he or she wants you to know.
Even if you don’t know what to say, it’s important to acknowledge someone’s loss. Saying, “you have my sympathy,” or “I am sorry for your loss,” is appropriate. Or just saying, “I am thinking of you,” is sufficient.
Jacqueline Whitmore is an etiquette expert and founder of the Protocol School of Palm Beach in Palm Beach, Fla. She is the author of Poised for Success: Mastering the Four Qualities That Distinguish Outstanding Professionals (St. Martin's Press, 2011) and Business Class: Etiquette Essentials for Success at Work (St. Martin's Press, 2005).