When Clients Suffer a Tragedy
By Karyn Greenstreet
In recent months, two of my Synergy members lost a family member, and another has been in the hospital on and off. The brother of one of my colleagues’ died. Another colleague had a house fire and lost his condo.
It got me thinking: when your clients, members, colleagues, and staff suffer a personal tragedy, what can you do?
By no means is this a complete list. I’m sharing about a dozen ideas from how I’ve dealt with situations like this. I’d love to hear other ideas from you. (And if you are the one who suffered the loss, what did you need most from your business colleagues?)
I think timing is everything. When the tragedy is fresh and personal, and your relationship is mostly business, you might start with a note or flowers. Later on, you can connect live in some way. It’s also appropriate to consider the depth of your relationship. Do you know each other well enough that a personal visit to a hospital room is fitting.
- Send a hand-written note. Not an email, not a Facebook post. There’s nothing more heartfelt and valuable than a hand-written expression of sympathy, that you’re thinking of them and that you care.
- Send flowers. If there’s been a death in their family, find out if the family requests flowers or a donation to a charity in the loved one’s name. If they’re in the hospital, find out of you can send flowers there.
- Attend the funeral. If the funeral is an open one (not “family members only”) consider whether it’s appropriate to attend.
- Visit the patient. If your client or colleague is in the hospital, decide if your relationship is personal enough that a visit is appropriate. Ask family members if the person is well enough to have outside visitors. Sometimes doctors will limit the patient’s visitation time.
- Offer help. Our first reaction may be to offer help. Find out specifically what kind of help they need. They may not know themselves, so if you’ve been in a similar situation, you may be able to make a suggestion of how you can help. In a world of virtual relationships, sometimes you can’t offer the in-person help they need, but maybe you can contact mutual colleagues and share the news. If, for instance, they’ve lost their house to a fire, can you organize a clothing drive for them, or gather money donations to help them get on their feet again?
- Get in touch. Decide if/when a phone call is appropriate. Depending on the depths of your relationship, having a quick phone call might be appropriate. However, when someone suffers a tragedy, they’re often deeply focused there and don’t have time for outside conversations. You might want to offer a conversation, and ask them if they feel up to it. Or wait a week or two, then reach out.
- Honor their boundaries. When you begin working together again, ask them if they want to talk about it, or if they’d rather not. Let them guide you about whether they want to bring their personal life into your business relationship. In this way, you honor their feelings by being open about boundaries and their preferences. Some people see their business life as a safe space away from thoughts about their family; others want to discuss their situation with their colleagues. But don’t ignore what happened. A brief, “I’m so sorry for your loss” can be enough if they want to keep the relationship purely business.
- Be flexible in your business arrangements. Even if you’re under contract with them, life has a way of changing things. Decide how strongly you want to enforce contracts. On one hand, you can empathize with their situation; on the other hand, it may affect your bottom line or a big project you’re working on. You may need to postpone working with them, or renegotiate your contract.
- Grief is a process. And it can last a long, long time, coming in waves. Ask your client if they want to work at the same level with you as before the tragedy, or if they’d like to ratchet back, or go down a different path. But don’t assume they want to pause. I’ve had situations where people fiercely want to get back to their normal life, and want to continue working with you at the same pace.
- Tragedy changes us. For many, it reminds us that life can be unpredictable, and it forces us to rethink what we want out of life. Your client may need some time for introspection and soul-searching, and may choose to not work with you while they’re processing their thoughts and feelings.
- Deal with your own shock and grief. If you’ve been working with them a long time, you may experience grief yourself. It’s painful to know your client is suffering. If the news is unexpected, there is a sense of shock. Acknowledge that you care for them and that you’re going to have feelings, too.
Each business relationship you have, you’re having it with another human being who has a whole life outside of your work relationship. I have come to care very deeply about my clients and colleagues, and when they suffer, I feel it and I want to reach out to them in some way. I’m sure you do, too.