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A colleague had recently lost a close relative and was out of office for about a week. He just returned to work.

We do not interact frequently as our duties are not directly related. However, we sit in the same general area and typically see one another a few times a day.

What would be the appropriate way to behave with him, when we initially run into each other upon his return?

I realize this depends on how a few things, such as how they seem to be doing (nonverbal clues), or whether they initiate or do not initiate contact.

For purposes of this question assume the person is somewhat reserved, minds their own business most of the time, and prefers brief, to-the-point interaction (minimal gossip/BS).

That said, it seems odd if I completely ignore the situation pretending as if nothing has happened whatsoever. Especially interested to hear from those who have first-hand experience successfully navigating similar situations.

Note: I have tried to identify duplicates and was unable to find one. I appreciate the reference to the question: What is an appropriate response to the death of a coworker's loved one?. Although there is overlap, this question is different in the following ways:

  1. The other OP specifically stated that "I could approach him during work hours and offer my condolences, but that definitely does not fit my office's culture." This case is the exact opposite.

  2. The other OP requested assistance with a broader approach, which potentially involved attending the viewing, making a donation, etc, whereas this question specifically asks for the appropriate direct interaction with a colleague who returned after a leave related to the passing of a family member.

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This did not happen to me, but I would also be interested in "real" feedback. That being said, quoting the elements you provided :

  • We do not interact frequently

  • The person is somewhat reserved, minds their own business

  • Prefers brief, to-the-point interaction

This means you either say nothing, or you simply say "I'm sorry for your loss". You might want to listen closely when people are running into him ; how are they interacting. If you notice several people giving their condolences, you should also do so, in a simple, short and clear sentence. If you notice nobody does such a thing, you should do the same. As you are an acquaintance of him, and not a friend, I would advise you imitate what the average co-worker will do.

  • Your logic is circular: if the OP is "the average co-worker," then the average co-worker will create a duplicate question. Now what should the average co-worker do, after having asked this question? – employee-X Feb 7 '17 at 17:28
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    I do agree that circular logic would not work. That being said, the logic is not perfectly circular, because OP has asked for advice while the other co-workers did not. In a world where everyone has the same advice and so on, you enter a prisoner's dilemna. – Thalantas Feb 7 '17 at 18:25
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    That's my point. The OP is not some incarnation of "the average co-worker." Trying to do "what the average co-worker is doing" is not sound advice, because if everyone does that, then everyone is waiting for someone else to figure it out. it doesn't deal with the actual problem: why should the OP take a specific action? – employee-X Feb 7 '17 at 18:52
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    @jpaugh Guys, guys I think the points have been made - are you just arguing now for the sake of arguing. I actually would side with Thalantas here that an 'average' response is probably the most appropriate. – A.S Feb 7 '17 at 20:27
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    And then, on the 100th night, they all leave the island. – AndreKR Feb 8 '17 at 2:05
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+50

I can so far only answer this from the experience of the one who lost someone.

When I called in to inform my boss, he added some nice consoling words to "It's okay, take your time." After I returned I realised he had not told my colleagues. I was rather new at the job at that time, and I guess he was not sure how much I wanted this to be spread around. I ended up telling the ones I was close enough to, especially the ones that worked in the same office and might see me struggle to keep my composure at times. When I felt bad, I went out for a walk. Generally I tried to focus on work and did not want to be treated special as it would make me think of what happened and then feel sad. I also knew that this is what the person who passed away would want me to do, not loose focus in my new job and be able to go on with life. One time I was on the verge of crying and one of the colleagues in my office saw it and asked me if I wanted to talk. At that point I wanted, but not about my passed relative, I wanted to be distracted and that was what she did.

So in general, offer your shoulder to cry on or them to come around to talk a little or to take a silent walk during lunchtime depending on how close you feel and how comfortable you would be with any of this. But do it once and if they say "thanks but no thanks" leave them to it with no bad afterthought. Also, don't offer anything you don't feel comfortable with, because awkward situations won't help them. If you are not close at all, tell them once you feel sorry for their loss and move on.

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    This is the best answer. It is good to get your perspective. I went through something similar. I got absolutely no latitude at work with the exception of a few. I stayed professional and performed my job very well. It was more than tough. I ended up retiring shortly after that. Thank You Cheers!! – closetnoc Feb 7 '17 at 23:24
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    This principle works for many situations, not just for someone who lost someone. Make it clear you're there, maybe a little pro-active attitude, but be a stable factor. – Martijn Feb 8 '17 at 8:10
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Extend your sympathies on their loss and either let the subject drop or let the person talk about it depending on that person's response. A simple "I am sorry for your loss" is all that is needed. That is the polite thing to do in all cases when you know someone has had a loss.

I have extended condolences many, many times in my career and it has never been poorly received. Sometimes though the person doesn't want to talk about it further and that's OK, people grieve differently. Others are grateful for a shoulder to cry on and if that is the case let them. Once you have had a great grief of your own, you will understand why that is so important.

When I was the one suffering from a grief (I am widowed and have lost my parents), the people who reached out to me were very important. They made me feel human and cared about. The ones at work who did not, particularly a few senior managers that I worked with daily, made me feel like I was an interchangeable machine part and not a person with feelings.

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I lost my mom a couple years ago, so speak from first-hand experience.

You aren't close to this coworker, so are not part of their support network. Don't try to be. You can offer a simple "Sorry for your loss," this is appreciated, but nothing more is expected nor wanted from you.

Be understanding that this person is going through some tough emotions. So if they seem distant or unfocused while at work, don't push them. But otherwise, just act normally. The hardest part after suffering that kind of loss is just feeling "normal" again, and very likely coming to work is a chance for this person to do that. It's a refuge from the bad feelings they are probably having in their personal life. If you want to help, just focus on the task at hand and be normal.

  • Excellent suggestion and this is basically what I did - see my comment under OP question. Thank you for confirming the proper approach. – A.S Feb 7 '17 at 21:24
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    Having lost both parents in fairly quick succession a couple of years, I can broadly reinforce the "nothing more is expected nor wanted" sentiment... it was nice/comforting when colleagues offered a sympathetic "Sorry for your loss" comment, but I didn't expect them to, and certainly didn't want them to feel obliged to do so. In most cases, no more was said; with some (either the closer ones or those who had been in a similar situation) things were discussed at greater length and being allowed the opportunity to do so certainly helped. – TripeHound Feb 8 '17 at 11:01
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  1. Make it clear, in whatever way works best, that you sympathise.
  2. Give them the opportunity to open up to you, without putting pressure on them to do so.

Don't ever feel that your relationship isn't close enough for you to get involved. Once or twice in my life, when I've needed emotional support from a colleague, it has come from people I hardly knew, and that actually makes it easier in some ways to accept, because it's then one person to another with no historical baggage.

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    +1 for sometimes the greatest comfort comes from someone you hardly know. I'm not an outgoing person, but I've had a similar experience of a colleague providing support, and it's stuck with me to this day. Obviously don't apply pressure, as you said, but I'd be surprised if someone were outright hurt or offended by an offer of support. – Kat Feb 7 '17 at 19:45
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I recently got way too much experience with this. Here are a few tips:

  1. You almost have to say something. Otherwise, the other person will be constantly waiting for you to bring it up or wondering if they should bring it up. Waiting for the other shoe to drop is uncomfortable to them and it's hard for them to start the conversation but easy for you to.

  2. It's hard to know what is safe to say. So you must follow their lead. Do not mention prayer, an afterlife, or anything like that unless they do. Other things to avoid including anything about having to make up slack while they were gone or that you'll be understanding if they aren't fully effective when they return to work. Just don't.

  3. Things that are almost always safe to say are: "I'm sorry for your loss." "Please accept my sincere condolences." "Let me know if you want to talk." "Do you need anything?" "Is there anything I can do?" Pick the one that most closely reflects what you really mean and don't say it if you don't mean it.

  4. Some people have a lot of things they want to say and are waiting to open up. Some people just want to be left alone. You should be able to quickly figure out what their style is and just go with it.

Be careful with statements like "Take all the time you need" or offering to reduce their workload. It may seem like you're implying that they're not being effective or that you expect them not to be.

We're all equipped to be human beings and to be sympathetic. Just choose to do it. Don't push, if you say one sentence and then they're done with the conversation, that's fine too.

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It is their loss, not yours. It is their life, not yours. It is up to them what will happen next. Your initiative can make it worse but barely it wil improve anything.

Greet them politely and do not ask why they were out, unless they told you earlier. If they told you what happened, then say "I'm sorry for your loss, I'm glad to see you again." Some people want to sort this topic by themselves or in small group. If you are not invited, do not try to take part.

Avoid changing topic relative to their loss, unless they are changing it that way. If you do it accidentaly, excuse for it "Sorry, I didn't know that". Some people can be sensitive to a reminder of their relationship to the lost person.

Do not make jokes relative to their loss, unless they are joking about it. Be carefull to have "brighter" jokes than them. Some people use (dark) humor to deal with such loss.

If you say something you want to unsay immediately (you realize that this topic or wording may be inappropriate) eatch their reaction. If they do not interrupt you, finish the sentence or idea and leave it without any comment. Some people may be offended by the other's overcarefull behaviour. Or your overreaction can make the reminder of the lost relative.

tl;dr
Wait for their behaviour and react with respect to it. Do not take the initiative.

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Eye contact, body language

I have had that situation, and know the feeling. In your case (no frequent interactions) I would suggest this algorithm:

  • If you happen to meet him shortly after the event (say 1-2 weeks), then offer a short, sincere line "I heard about your loss, are you going to be OK?" (depending on your culture of course, not those exact words). More important: firm look in the eye, maybe a split second longer than usual (no staring contest, obviously).
    • If it would be normal for you to shake hands in regular circumstances, do so, and make it a bit more sincere than usual (i.e., just a split second longer, maybe a bit firmer).
  • If you do not meet in the first 1-2 weeks after it, then I would not mention it later, unless he talks about it.
  • If you "meet" on the phone or in some Lync etc. chat, then I would not mention it unless he does, no matter which time.
  • After that, go back to normal. Do not mention it, don't behave special around him.

The reasoning is that with this approach you give him a little emotional support (I assume you are male, and the colleague is as well) and the hypothetical offer to talk about it in a not too emotional way (i.e., I would not come out with "I am sorry for your loss" because as you did not know them nor their parent, that would probably be a lie).

As you state it, I assume that your colleague will not take you up on your implied offer; and if he does, it will be more likely than not a rather one-sided communication with him telling you whatever he needs to tell you, and you listening and acknowledging what he says. I would suggest not to give him advice about anything, or start chatting about any other deaths you happen to know about.

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Hopefully my current experience can help others understand what to do: A couple weeks ago, I lost my younger brother to cancer. We were very close and it has left a huge hole in my life than I'm still trying to understand how to deal with. As far as the behavior of my colleagues, the experience has been not so great. My manager and director have been supportive and I had no problem getting the time off to be with him so he wasn't alone at the end. That was incredibly wonderful, as I know many people wouldn't be able to get away so easily from their work. So if you're in a position to allow someone extra time off to be with a loved one and do what they need to do, make sure you give them that flexibility.

My director sent flowers with a note saying "from your [company name] family". That was greatly appreciated. Unfortunately, he hadn't actually told the rest of my department. I had originally told my team I would be out of the office because my brother's battle with cancer had taken a turn for the worse, but upon seeing that note, I wrongly assumed he'd passed on the news of my brother's death. So shortly after returning to work, a teammate bounds in and brightly says SO HOW'S YOUR BROTHER DOING?! It was painful to have to explain he had passed, and the coworker ended up feeling like a jerk. The rest of the day, everyone else acted like nothing had happened, and bombarded me with irritated emails/IMs because things hadn't been attended to while I was gone.

So, absolutely do NOT pounce on the returning colleague on their first day back and act like their absence was an inconvenience and it's their fault things haven't moved forward in their absence.

All you need to do is lead with "I'm sorry for your loss" or something along those lines, then follow with "can we discuss [important item] when you get caught up and have some time?". Then follow their lead. They may want to talk about it more, or they may want to just dive in to work.

My manager did end up announcing to the department what had happened a few days later, and honestly, the reaction has made me question whether to even keep working here. There were a tiny number of people who expressed short, simple condolences, which were helpful, and all that was needed. Then, people I'd worked closely with for years didn't say a word.... I'm trying to just move on and get back into doing my job, but that's pretty cold. So DON'T just pretend like nothing happened, as I'm sitting here wondering "do they not care?"....

We spend 40 hours a week (or more) with our colleagues, so while we don't need to be best pals and socialize outside of work regularly, there still needs to be a feeling that people care just a little bit about your life, and that you're not just an interchangeable "human resource". Honestly, right now, a lot of my colleagues are making me feel like the time I was absent from work to be with my dying brother was merely an inconvenience to them. To have people I worked closely with for years not say a single word, and act as though nothing has happened, is really hard to understand. So don't just act like nothing happened, just simply acknowledge what has happened, then give them some time to get their mind back to 100%. It will take time.

  • Thank you for sharing your experience and perspective - from my opinion it seems spot-on. – A.S Oct 17 '17 at 18:34

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