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Responding to Sorrow

December 20, 1999|KIRSTIN DOWNEY GRIMSLEY | WASHINGTON POST

Question: I own a health and fitness business, and one of my clients recently had an unexpected death in her family. Her husband passed away within a week of being diagnosed with a fatal illness. At work, we are very close to our clients and often offer personal gestures in simple acknowledgment, celebration and condolence. I do not want to send flowers only, as it seems too generic a gesture. I was wondering if I should offer her a free massage. Any ideas about things that could help her more personally?

Answer: Losing a family member is traumatic at any time of the year, but it's even worse at the holidays. As the working population ages, however, dealing with grief is something business owners, managers and co-workers are going to face even more frequently than in the past.

"If you suffer a loss of significance, you'll feel really, really lonely, and at the holidays, it's especially poignant," said Naomi Naierman, president and chief executive of the Bethesda, Md.-based American Hospice Foundation, who said it was a "wonderful idea" to offer the client a free massage.

"Anything that can help a person relax is very soothing," she said.

Flowers, of course, remain the universal acknowledgment, as well as sympathy cards and making a contribution to a charitable organization in the name of the person who died. Ann Van Buskirk, author of "One More Star in Heaven Now: A Guide to Comforting Someone Who Is Grieving in Life and at Work," a new book from Santa Barbara-based Blue Point Books, offered several suggestions. Among them: offering a session of yoga or tennis classes or inviting the grieving person to take a walk in the park, which would allow her to talk about her loss if she chose to do so.

Another Van Buskirk idea is preparing meals--preferably something like chicken or apple pie that can be eaten hot or cold--because a grieving family often has an irregular schedule for a while.

Q: I have a fairly close friend at work whose mother died unexpectedly last week. She is an only child and her father is ill, so she had to fly to Oregon to take care of things. We're all worried about what we should do. We sent flowers to the funeral home with a card, but what should we do when she comes back next week? Is it better to just act like nothing happened and let her bring it up if she wants? I'm so uncomfortable dealing with death in my own family, and it's worse in a work setting. What do you recommend?

A: "Doing nothing and saying nothing is the worst thing to do," said the Hospice Foundation's Naierman. It's important to acknowledge what happened, even if it is an awkward conversation. "A simple 'I'm so sorry' " is enough, she said, if it is offered compassionately and discreetly, with direct eye contact, and preferably in a relatively private setting.

Naierman said a group of kind co-workers can make a big difference in how grieving workers feel at work and how quickly they recover emotionally. At some companies, for example, it is possible for co-workers to donate their sick leave or vacation time to a co-worker facing a crisis. In addition, they might want to consider whether some work duties can be reassigned or shifted to other people's shoulders for a while.

"Don't expect people to be totally productive" at first, Naierman said, adding that it is not unusual for a person who has suffered a serious loss to unexpectedly burst into tears at seemingly inappropriate times.

More and more companies are establishing programs to help workers deal with grief. An employer survey conducted this summer by the Workplace Task Force for the Last Acts Coalition found that bereavement leave is offered by 88% of employers and family and medical leave programs were offered by two-thirds of employers. The number of companies offering employee assistance programs, which can provide psychological counseling in the wake of a family tragedy, has doubled in the last four years, with 48% of companies with more than 100 workers now offering them, according to the Department of Labor.

In her book, Van Buskirk recommends that managers who learn of a death in a subordinate's family ask for permission to notify the other staff and clients, designate a point person at work who will share information about memorial services to spare the family additional inconvenience, permit co-workers to attend the funeral, organize whatever company support is available, and arrange for flowers or other appropriate acknowledgment.

Another source of information is the American Hospice Foundation booklet "Grief at Work," which has information for both manager and employees. It can be obtained by contacting the American Hospice Foundation, 1130 Connecticut Ave. NW, Suite 700, Washington, DC 20036.

Kirstin Downey Grimsley can be reached via e-mail at downeyk@washpost.com.

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