Dear Alexandra: My colleague’s mother passed away suddenly last week. None of us are exactly sure what happened, but we think the circumstances were somewhat mysterious. Anyway, he is in the office today and I have no idea what to say, or if I should say anything at all. I just feel really awkward.
Great question, and I’m glad you wrote to ask for advice on the proper etiquette. I know it’s uncomfortable, but the worst thing you can do is say nothing. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances were – you owe a colleague you see every day a gesture of sympathy.
People who are experiencing loss already feel alone and like no one understands what they are going through. You don’t want him to also perceive that you don’t care and/or that your first priority is your own sense of comfort. This is how I felt when my own mother passed away a few years ago, and most of my colleagues and even some of my friends didn’t say a word to me.
I recommend taking him aside and telling him that you are sorry for his loss, and ask if there is anything you can do to make this difficult time easier for him. You do not need to inquire as to the specifics of his mother’s death as this might come across as prying. Simply be direct and sincere in your personal overture, and then follow up with a handwritten card. Over the next few weeks, you might check in with him a few times to see how he is doing. Trust me, he’ll appreciate it.
Your actions during this time may well dictate how this colleague feels about you from this point forward. If you go out of your way to instill good will when others don’t, it will cement an ongoing positive relationship.