I’ve been thinking about how we deal with grief at work, our own and that of colleagues. What do you say to someone you work with, but may not know more than to say “hi” to in the coffee room? What if you offer sympathy and they make a scene? Or you make a scene? Most of us have, or will go through deciding how to handle interoffice grief at some point. I took a look at recently published, There Is No Good Card for This: What To Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love, to see what experts counsel.
I figured it was yet another full-of-the-obvious self-help book. But the authors had me at “This is not chicken soup for the soul. It’s whiskey for the wounded.” Okay then, with that attitude they might have actually something to say. Or, they’re just great copy jockeys. We’ve all paid good money for books based on pithy cover lines, only to find 300 pages of zilch.
Co-authors Emily McDowell, founder of a multi-million dollar greeting card company for real people in real situations (including Empathy Cards) and Kelsey Crowe, Ph.D., founder of Help Each Other Out, empathy bootcamps, both understand those of us who are concerned about doing the wrong thing and freeze. They feel your pain, but the bottom line is intractable. Say something. Do something. Do not ignore them. “You don’t have to say it in person if you feel tongue-tied, says Crowe, “A note or cupcake on the desk or even email will be appreciated. No one knows the right thing to say, just find a way to do it.”
I can vouch for the “don’t ignore it” advice. While in my early twenties one of my siblings died in a car crash. When I returned to work, not one person said anything. It hurt my feelings, at the time, deeply, but I do understand it is hard. Just do it. There are a lot of options in There is No Good Card For This if you need help figuring out what to do. You might even say something like, “I’m sorry you’re going through this. I don’t really know what to say.” Or, just “I’m sorry.”
Suzanne Wickham, Senior Director of Publicity, HarperOne, doesn’t subscribe to the idea of expressing condolences in person, feeling it can be awkward in an office setting. But she always sends a card, writing, “Thinking of you. These cards never really say it all, but they helped me a lot when my dad passed away.” Whitcomb thinks offering solace should always come first. She recalls an entire lunch with a book reviewer listening to him talk about his late wife. “He brought it up, and I listened,” says Whitcomb. “We did zero business that lunch which was fine. It’s more important to be a compassionate human being.”
The “let’s go for coffee or a meal” thing can slide sideways, however. A lunch, arranged to give a recently bereaved co-worker an opportunity to express his feelings, was highjacked for two hours by another guest waxing on about the death of his father years before. Everyone at the table was stunned into silence. Even so, I’ve come to think we have to accept individual reactions to what is meant as kindness, even if it seems off the wall.
About ten years ago, I went to a colleague’s office to see how she was doing and if I could do anything for her. (Don’t we all ask that dumb question?) She got furious, yelling, “How the [heck] do you think I feel? My dad just died.” Crowe says it’s not uncommon for those in mourning to become angry when you inadvertently ask a clumsy question. My co-worker responded to “How are you feeling?” with understandable anger. I should have said, ‘I’m sorry’ or ‘How are you feeling today?’ rather than leaving the question open-ended. Lesson learned. She apologized to me years later.
NPR News correspondent and author of the etiquette book, Basic Black, Home Training For Modern Times, Karen Grisby Bates, recommends doing whatever is comfortable for you, your co-workers and appropriate in your office culture. Emily Post would probably roll over, wherever she is, to hear Grisby Bates pronounce it acceptable to write a message of sympathy on social media. With the caveat that only if the loss was announced on social media, can you respond in kind. “I have seen a lot of memorials on Facebook,” says Grisby Bates, “and it is fine to write something there. But only if the family or person has introduced the subject themselves online.”
At the end of the day, all you need is empathy for another human, which comes down to imagining what it would be like to be in their place, and acting accordingly. Eric Anderson, co-owner of SE2, a Denver-based communications agency focused on public issues, lost his mother a few years ago. A card, signed by the entire staff when he got back to work, touched him. One woman suggested seeing a Chris Farley movie because it always cheered her up. “It was a graceful acknowledgment of my mother’s death without being maudlin, he says. “They made it personal to me.”
Both Crowe and Mcdowell recognized the need for help when trying to express empathy from experience. Their own struggles with the situation seeded the idea for the book and card line. Even though co-author, Emily Crowe is a cancer survivor who experienced re-entry to the working world, she says she got involved with the project because she was so bad at expressing empathy herself. She knew at first hand the importance of acknowledging loss. Her mother died while Crowe was in her early twenties after years of estrangement. “There wasn’t anyone to express sympathy,” says Crowe, “but I knew that I wanted someone to say or do something. I knew how it felt not to be recognized as grieving.”