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When Faced With Loss. Say Anything

Interacting with a coworker who’s just suffered the death of a loved one is awkward enough in a traditional workplace, according to this June 2015 article from Forbes – which also helpfully offers some best practices on what to do in this situation. But the etiquette of condolence is even trickier for lawyers in solo and small firm practice where relationships with colleague and clients are often sporadic and may not touch on personal matters.

Like many of my solo colleagues, I’d always felt awkward on the giving end of condolences. The situation raises a myriad of questions – either ones that I’ve had or seen posted on list serves. Like:

  • Should I show up at the funeral or wake or shiva if I haven’t seen or spoken with this colleague in a decade?
  • Do I include a business card in a sympathy note that I’m sending to a past client – or will that make it appear as if I’m trolling for business?
  • My colleague hasn’t shared his or her loss – I discovered it on [Google/Facebook/Newspaper Notice – you fill in the blanks]. If I mention it, will I seem like a stalker?
  • What if I say something stupid or offensive?
  • Is it OK to send an email, or do I have to send a card?

Sadly I’m now on the receiving end of condolences. What being in this place has taught me is that even saying the wrong thing (and I did hear a few of these) is one hundred times better than not saying anything at all.  Still, if you want to do more than simply not cause harm, here are a couple of things that you can say or do to ease a colleague’s or client’s loss:

Say something even if you didn’t learn about the loss directly.  I received several emails and kind words from colleagues who never knew that Bruce had been sick or passed away – but learned it either through my blog or others. Their emails and remarks were somewhat tentative, as if they weren’t sure if they were overstepping but were greatly appreciated.

Show up if possible and appropriate.  While showing up at a one-time client’s funeral probably isn’t appropriate, you should try to make an appearance at a memorial service when a colleague loses someone. You don’t need to stay long or even say something while you’re there – I didn’t realize how many lawyers I’d worked with over the past 20 years and scarcely kept in touch with came to Bruce’s funeral until I looked at the guestbook afterwards. Just showing up is enough.

What to do?  If you want something other than show up, there are many more options. Food is always welcome (if not for the mourner, then his or her visitors or family), as are cards and contributions in the deceased’s honor to a designed charity or one of your choice. If you practice in the same field, or are participating in the same case as your colleague, you can track new developments or offer to make an appearance or handle a filing as one fellow lawyer did for me.

Be understanding. If your colleague has lost someone close, be patient. Your colleague may return to work just a week or two later, but that hardly means that things are back to normal. Three months after Bruce’s death, I still have trouble focusing, and have been less responsive in returning calls and emails, or managing discretionary matters (like blog posts, or bar committee events) than I was before any of this happened. Likewise, if a note or platter that you sent remains unacknowledged even after a few months, realize that your colleague can still be distracted. Plus, as I know from my current experience, there’s an added psychological barrier to thank yous because they reinforce the finality of the loss.

Do the right thing, even if it is good business too.  Years ago, a young colleague of mine described that a client selected him over several more experienced competitors simply because my colleague was the only one of the bunch to express condolences when the client confided that his spouse had recently passed away. Let’s face it – expressing sympathy can be good business. And while picking up a new client shouldn’t be the driving factor in sharing a few words of comfort, neither should the possibility that sincere condolences may be misconstrued as an effort to get business deter you from not saying anything.

Realize that grief doesn’t make people jerks – they’re just that way.  In a time of grief, some people avoid saying anything because they’re afraid of saying the wrong thing and being berated or humiliated. And while it’s true that this is always a risk – I once showed up at the shiva for a parent at my daughter’s school whom I’d lost touch with over the years – and in front of the entire gathering, she loudly brayed “That’s Carolyn – she doesn’t return phone calls, but she shows up at a shiva? Perhaps this woman’s grief emboldened her to say this, but truth is, I never liked her much which is why I avoided her. So when you’re dealing with a colleague who you don’t much care for, say what you need to out of respect, but realize that any backlash is their problem.

As I have learned these past three months, grief is both exhausting and isolating. Kind words from colleagues and clients don’t make it go away – nothing can – but surprisingly, they ease the pain and make more of a difference than I would have ever imagined when I was on the other side.