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One of the people who reports to me lost their son in an accident over the weekend. She has a lot of colleagues that rely on her on a daily basis. She is somewhat of a project owner on a project that is set to go live before Thanksgiving.

We have a very tight knit team — several of us have been working together for near a decade. She has requested that I inform those on the team that do not already know. I am at a bit of a loss right now on how to do this. So far, both my attempts have felt impersonal. Example:

Team,

It is with much sadness that I must inform you that [employee] lost their son [employee's son] over the weekend in a tragic accident. [additional sorrow message with services information]

[What to do about the various responsibilities that employee had]

Sincerely,

USER_8675309

How can I convey the sorrow that I have about this situation while still making sure that work doesn't grind to a halt across the next two weeks — this employee is one of my best and most reliable.

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    Do you already have full information on the planned funeral service(s) or will you be sending out a second mail later in the week? – Lilienthal Nov 13 '17 at 16:56
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    The typical phrasing "It is with [deep regret / great sadness] that...", although that's a fairly formal phrasing. – Dukeling Nov 13 '17 at 17:03
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    Are you sure an email is best for this? Seems like a "Hey guys, conference room, 1:30. See you then" kind of thing... – corsiKa Nov 13 '17 at 19:38
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    In the last paragraph you sound as if you expected the employee to come in anytime soon. While it is not technically impossible, I advise to treat the situation approximately the same way as if she was gravely ill and it were unclear when she would be returning. Which is essentially similar. I do not know her, however, as a father I can not imagine anything worse in the world than to have my child die. Literally any other loss would be less devastating. This is the kind of tragedy that usually shakes one's world to the core - job is quite possibly the least important thing to think of. – Gnudiff Nov 13 '17 at 23:38
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    Are you sure the person wants everyone informed? Be very careful otherwise- this is confidential information you got as the manager. You are obliged to keep it confidential - unless clearly told otherwise. – Aganju Nov 14 '17 at 0:44
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First send out the email about the loss separate from anything about rearranging duties. It should include any information you have about the funeral or visitation or even if there is a charity they want contributed to but nothing about business. If you don't have those details yet, say you will pass them on as soon as you get them. It doesn't have to be long or terribly emotional however it is disrespectful to discuss business in the same communication. If there are internal people that she normally works closely with who are not on your team, please include them. Do this as soon as you can, it doesn't have to be perfect..(My beloved died on a Friday and I got no communications from anyone at work over the weekend and I was very upset only to find out, on Tuesday, that they had not actually told anyone even though I had specifically requested it. So don't be responsible for causing more harm by not communicating quickly.)

As far as rearranging the workload, set up a meeting to do that. Also allow time in your schedule for the team to attend the funeral. It is critical that you as her manager attend the funeral. It is helpful if everyone else does too. People who want you to know about their grief tend to prefer to have the support of people they work with. Many offices close for the funeral of a child or spouse of an employee or for the funeral of an employee because most people will feel the need to attend.

You will also want to write an email to any customers (internal or external) who are expecting the delivery by Thanksgiving or who usually deal with her on a daily basis. Do this after the meeting to resolve who will do what so you can tell them that the point of contact has changed.

As someone who lost her life partner (Which is horrible but many would consider losing a child as worse), I can tell you that even when she gets back it may be months before she is fully back to her usual standard of performance. Expect her to show signs of grief for at least a year.

@HLGEM Would you inform the external customers of the extent of the tragedy, or simply that they'd suffered a loss?

It would depend on what the person wanted and how closely they work with the external customers. Sometimes, you just say, they had a personal emergency. When Karl died, most of my external customers were told that I was on bereavement leave and that deadlines would be affected. One asked if I could come in and do just this one thing and our account manager (for whom I am forever grateful) said, "What part of bereavement leave did you not get."

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    +1 and I think it's worth recognizing even in the email that there's not an easy or good way to communicate it. Something like, "Team, there's really not a good way to communicate this, but.." can be helpful for that reason. – enderland Nov 13 '17 at 16:51
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    It would depend on what the person wanted and how closely they work with the external customers. Sometimes, you just say, they had a personal emergency. When Karl died, most of my external customers were told that I was on bereavement leave and that deadlines would be affected. One asked if I could come in and do just this one thing and our account manager (for whom I am forever grateful) said, "What part of bereavement leave did you not get." – HLGEM Nov 13 '17 at 18:37
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    @DRF, If you felt that way, you likely would not be sharing the funeral details as the OP has stated he has been asked to do. Someone who shares the details wants people to attend. – HLGEM Nov 13 '17 at 20:42
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    “At least a year...”. It’s been seven and a half for me, and I still have to fight them tears when certain triggers come along – WGroleau Nov 14 '17 at 0:27
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    +1 for "What part of Bereavement Leave did you not get". Echo this sentiment to anyone who needs to hear it. Sometimes people can't get their head around the fact that some personal events take priority over their business needs and wants. – Miller86 Nov 14 '17 at 10:35
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I regret to inform you that [employee]'s son has passed away unexpectedly over the weekend.

Information regarding condolences will be made available later.

As [employee] will be taking bereavement leave until further notice please be sensitive and do not contact [employee] for any work related issues. [Another employee] will field all questions regarding [employee's projects and duties] and further assignments will be made so [employee] is not burdened at this time.

This accomplishes several things:

  1. Sets boundaries. Most people know not to bring up work with someone who's grieving, but, unfortunately, some do not or may believe that their issue demands their attention. Make it clear that they are not to disturb the employee, and you can have your liaison do so if necessary, if the employee has chosen to start fielding such questions.
  2. Lets employees know that the company will provide some information about condolences/funeral arrangements, etc later so people don't start asking questions about it now or sending their condolences as replies to this email, possibly to a large mailing list.
  3. Doesn't discuss the details (in fact you may want to stick to "close relative/family member" rather than specifying). These emails may be seen further than necessary, and so only necessary information should be communicated to preserve privacy. Those that are close to the employee will find out through other channels, those that aren't don't need to know.
  4. Provides a single point of contact that from that point forward will be able to direct others. You want people to immediately stop calling employee, and the quickest way is not to make all the assignments, but to make one assignment that can then redirect others as the actual assignments are made.
  5. Lets people know that other assignments will be made, this is an indeterminate situation, and they may be expected to take on some of the additional load.
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    Disagree with point three. If the person involved has requested you tell employees details, then do so. It is very hard to keep telling people this news yourself, it takes some of the burden off doing so if the manager provides the information and you don't have to answer the inevitable questions when you return to work. My workplace initially did not follow my wishes on this and it was HELL when I returned until I went in and forced HR to send out what they should have sent out days earlier. – HLGEM Nov 15 '17 at 14:50
  • @HLGEM I'm sorry for the difficulty that caused for you. Thanks for the perspective, that's a great point when drafting this type of communication! – Adam Davis Nov 15 '17 at 14:59
  • This is an excellent answer. Also, people handle loss and bereavement differently. I've had coworkers who took 1 day off after a parent died tragically - very different from losing a child, but they were very close to being their normal self afterwards. They weren't repressing anything, they just had extraordinary coping and emotional self-care abilities, in addition to the support network. So, some people may be able to or even prefer to do a bit of work. This makes the hand-off easier, as well as the return afterwards. Grieving is for the benefit of the living, not for the dead. – user3685427 Nov 15 '17 at 19:06
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These things aren't easy to write. The tone will usually depend on the nature of the relationships between you, your team and the person who was lost or who suffered a loss. How close-knit the office is will also matter. Luckily for an initial announcement mail like this it's fine to follow a generic formula and keep it brief.

There's a general script to follow for these things:

  • express regret,
  • communicate only the details that the employee or their family have asked you to communicate
  • provide info on any funeral services that have been planned as well and
    • mention it if employees can attend the service on company time if it's during a workday, which would be a massive kindness
  • if necessary, brief people on how the employee's work will be covered in the immediate term

In most cases, you shouldn't do the latter in this email. Jumping from such a heavy announcement straight to something like "Jack will take over Project X and Y, Jill will provide support for the upcoming Event A and other questions can be directed to me" can risk coming across as callous. Instead I would make some kind of mention on how you/management will be looking at how to provide cover for this person and that such arrangements will be communicated later. Mention that anyone with concerns or questions can contact you.

After that basic script you could go into further detail or express additional words of mourning but those aren't required and would usually, but not always, be reserved for when an employee dies and not for an employee who encounters a personal loss. But this is very culture-dependent and anyone facing this situation will simply have to exercise personal judgement in what is appropriate or called for.

If you have a very tight-knit office working from a single location, it's arguably better to call a floor meeting to announce this news instead of doing it via mail. But you'll have to send out details of the service via mail either way.

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    +1 for pointing out that this is better done in-person if possible (e.g. co-located team). Whether this is feasible / appropriate depends a lot on the size and dynamics of a given team, but it seems appropriate in OP's case. Perhaps a throat clearing and short announcement in the middle of the work area, or walking around to each desk and quietly making each person aware. Calling a meeting or even going into a meeting room would be likely be too formal, and would put pressure on the other employees to respond immediately and publicly to unexpected news. – brichins Nov 13 '17 at 20:39
  • I would avoid mixing the work duties with the bereavement announcement, at most I would state that I'll be making arrangements in due course and to contact me directly for any urgent issues. – James Snell Nov 14 '17 at 17:21
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Don't try to inject emotion into the email. Just be sensitive to the families privacy and convey just enough facts to provide the information to the company that they will need to go forward. No details beyond why you have provided here are required or helpful.

Remember your team member is going to come back from her bereavement leave and will eventually read the memo. So handle it professionally, but do not say anything more than absolutely required. Do not give any directives on how to handle her being out in the email. Let the teams deal with it and try to limp through while she deals with the loss of her son.

Remember, you work with professionals, and trust them to handle the absence just as they would if she were out sick. People generally are really great about picking up the slack when a close coworker suffers a tragedy.

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All the other answers had good points, but they seemed a bit too impersonal. Let's inject some humanity in the mail.

Share this with them, and her:

I am at a bit of a loss right now... Most of us have know each other for near a decade, and I see no good way to communicate this fact to you, but [employee's X] son, [insert name of dead son], has just died. It's my wish that, as the tight knit team we've come to be, that we in this hour of extreme distress, we're able to support our colleague [X].

Then follow all the other answers to your question.

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