I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I’m often at a loss for the right words – especially when someone I know professionally has just passed away.

While I may have known the deceased fairly well, I often don’t know the people closest to the deceased at all. That sometimes results in my stammering a few platitudes because I haven’t thought about what I want to say… at the very moment when saying the right thing is so important.

Here’s an example. A member of a crew I once supervised passed away. I met his wife for the first time at the funeral home. When I introduced myself I could tell she was glad I came.

Too bad I hadn’t thought through what I would say to her.

“Your husband was a great guy,” I said. She nodded appreciatively. Then I said, “There’s no way we will ever be able to replace him.”

Her face fell.

I was trying to say he was both an awesome person and an awesome coworker. I was trying to say we would really miss him both personally and professionally.

But to her it came across like I only cared that his death created an opening I would need to fill. Her unspoken thoughts were written all over her face: “I appreciate the fact he was important to you at work… but he was infinitely more important to me at home.”

Her husband, the man she had built her life with, could never be replaced. And my words had done nothing to console or comfort her. In fact my words had done less than nothing: I had made her feel bad on what was already the worst day of her life.

Maybe you’ve done the same thing, however unintentionally. For example, in Perfecting Your Pitch: How to Succeed in Business and in Life by Finding Words That Work, Ronald M. Shapiro describes what happened when Geaton DeCesaris, the husband of JoAnn DeCesaris, passed away after a three-year battle with cancer.

Shapiro shares how JoAnn found some of the things people said upsetting rather than comforting, like:

  • “It’s good to see you.” This was the most common phrase JoAnn heard from acquaintances she had not seen recently. It made her focus on their absence during her husband’s cancer rather than their attendance at his funeral.
  • “I know how you feel.” Regardless of the person’s relationship with her husband or the individual’s own experiences, comparing their experience to her feelings did nothing to alleviate JoAnn’s pain. (No one can ever really know how you feel.)
  • “God has a plan.” This was the initial thought she had when her husband was diagnosed, but by the time of her husband’s funeral it felt redundant and even infuriating.
  • “I just didn’t want to see him suffer.” To JoAnn this sounded more like an excuse for not visiting her husband during his illness than a genuine expression of sympathy.
  • “He was my best friend.” JoAnn naturally questioned why people who claimed to be her husband’s best friend did not come and support him when he needed them most.

Each was a well-intentioned expression of condolence but each was also, however unintentionally, unsettling or even hurtful. Still, some condolences she received were genuinely thoughtful and comforting.

One, from a close friend of her husband’s, expressed grief and genuine support:

“JoAnn, I’m sorry for your loss. Geaton helped me stay positive when I faced adversity in my personal life and I will never forget it. I want you to know I am here to offer the same support to you and your family.”

Another, from one of her daughter’s high school teachers, recognized accomplishments that would continue after his death:

“I’m sorry for your loss. He must have been a great father to raise such strong daughters.”

Shapiro writes, “There is no exact calculus of comfort for the bereaved, but thinking in advance about what to say can bring you closer to providing the comforting words that someone in JoAnn’s circumstance needs. Choosing words artfully does not deflate expressions of concern; rather, it supports the objective of comforting others.”

Which, of course, is what it’s all about.

So what could I have said to the wife of my crew member? After expressing my sorry for her loss, here are some possibilities:

  • “He was a great guy. I will really miss him.” Simple, to the point, and lets her know I cared about her husband as a person and not just an employee. We all hope our loved ones will be missed, if only because it means they made a genuine impact on other people.
  • “I could always count on him to tell me what I needed to hear… even if I didn’t want to hear it.” He would often step up to ask questions or raise issues when others hesitated. He had a reputation for being brutally honest and she would have appreciated hearing someone valued that quality in him, since that was a big part of who he really was.
  • “If you ever need help working through benefits or insurance issues, call me. I will help you in any way I can.” I’m sure the thought of dealing with practical like survivor benefits, health and life insurance, assistance programs, and other company programs seemed overwhelming; she may not have even known where to start. By offering to be her advocate I could have relieved some of that anxiety and worry.

But I didn’t. Shame on me.

Next time — because, unfortunately, there will always eventually be a next time — I will take the time to think it through so I can offer words of real comfort to a person desperately in need of comfort.

That’s the very least I can do.

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