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The etiquette of sympathy: What to do when coworker, client suffers a loss

On a beautiful spring day eight years ago, I was driving home to Savannah from Charlotte after welcoming my first grandchild into the world. Little Samuel Carroll Niles was whole and healthy, and life was good — almost.

My husband had suffered a fall six months earlier and was unable to accompany me.

I was nearly home when my cell phone rang. The call was from a friend who had stopped by to visit my husband and become alarmed when he did not come to the door. I drove into my driveway with the lights of the EMS truck flashing in my rearview mirror.

I lost my husband shortly thereafter. Within a three-week period, I had become both a grandmother and a widow.

As I attempted to get back to life “as normal,” I found that grief had its own timetable. When I was able to write again, I decided I needed to address this issue that confronts everyone at some point, personally and professionally.

It is often difficult to know what to say or do when someone dies. I want to share what I learned when my life was changed forever. Perhaps it will help you when someone you know — a client, a colleague, a coworker or a friend — loses a loved one.

It is important to do something. Many of us are so uncomfortable with death that we don’t do anything at all. We are afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

Attend the funeral or the memorial service if you can. Your presence offers immeasurable support. Even if you can’t speak directly to the family members, you can sign the book that they will read over and over again, and they will know that you cared enough to be present for them.

Write a note as soon as you can. Personal notes of condolence are a source of great comfort.

Others wrote about the character and personality of this special person I had lost. I was grateful for each and every note.

Commercial sympathy cards are equally cherished. It was clear to me that the commercial cards I received had been carefully chosen. Be sure to take the time to add that short personal note.

Send flowers unless the family specifies otherwise. Flowers add warmth and are visual reminders of the support of friends.

Take food and other items for daily living to the house. The last thing the grieving family can think about is grocery shopping and meal preparation.

Make a contribution to the charities indicated by the family. Honor their wishes. Give to the causes they chose unless the obituary states that contributions should be made to the donor’s favorite charity. If you missed the funeral notice and don’t have that information, call the funeral home. They will have a record.

Be specific when you offer to help. Most people say, “If there is anything you need, call.” While their intentions were genuine, I didn’t always know what I could ask certain people to do.

When our assistant rector uttered those words, my face must have flashed back a message that said, “Like what?” because he immediately followed with a verbal list of all the things I could call on him or other church members to do. One neighbor offered to walk the dog. Another proclaimed to be handy with household repairs if anything broke down or stopped working. Someone else volunteered to pick up family members from the airport.

Make a note of the date of the death. Honor the anniversary with a note or a phone call that says you haven’t forgotten. All too often we think that once a year has passed since the loss, the family or individual has moved on and no longer needs our sympathy.

It is not necessary to do or say something grand. Any gesture you make is comforting. A simple word, a hug, a phone call, a card or an offer to run an errand are just a few ways to express your sympathy.

Keep in mind that great authors, poets and thinkers have written for centuries about grief and loss, searching for just the right words to console themselves or someone else. When all is said and done, sometimes the best you can offer is a simple, “I’m sorry.” I never tired of hearing that short but sincere statement.

I hope that what I learned firsthand will help you to reach out with confidence, ease and compassion the next time someone close to you suffers a loss.

Lydia Ramsey is a Savannah-based business expert, speaker, trainer, author and coach. You can contact her at 912-598-9812 or go to her website at www.mannersthatsell.com.

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