When Clients Suffer a Tragedy
The Success Alliance


When Clients Suffer a Tragedy

Over the past year, two of my Synergy members lost a family member, and another member 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.

Many are affected by COVID-19.

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. How well you know each other might affect which action you take.

  • 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. If your area is hard-hit by COVID-19, you might not be allowed to visit the hospital at all.
  • 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 on dealing with their daily lives 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 what you went through” 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 a customer or colleague, 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.


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12 thoughts on “When Clients Suffer a Tragedy”

  1. J.R. Russell, PMP says:

    Your observations on how to deal with a client suffering a tragedy are spot-on! Having recently experienced this situation in my family, I can also add that sometimes a client may simply drop out of sight online due to the large volume of work needing to get done, being away with family, or due to one of those stages of grief. I think a card with a personal message along with an open invitation for a 1-on-1 conversation is always a great way to demonstrate that one cares for a client’s (or anyone’s!) wellbeing.

  2. Caroline says:

    I can’t tell you how much it meant to me when my mastermind group peers sent me sympathy cards when my husband died. We had been masterminding together for three years and really got to know each other on a personal as well as business level. It meant everything to me knowing that they cared and understood.

  3. A.M. Ward says:

    I recently experienced several tradgic deaths at the eve of the year, one was a close friend and former colleague carjacked and murdered, then my best friend passing away from a long term illness the day before my Christmas/New Year’s work-vacation. I was going away for the holiday and decided not to be in contact with any clients and let them know I needed the space… of course when I returned my dad, with whom I was very close, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and he passed a few days ago just as I was ramping back up into my projects. People often assume you don’t want to work at all but that’s not always what I need. Some days I need to be immersed in a project and other days I need to go to the bathroom and cry in between appointments… this is all great advice but the overall theme of allowing the grieving person to lead is important. Thank you for that.

    You also need to grieve yourself. It is hard to watch a colleague suffer and not be able to help them. I often think work helps us through these tough times but taking time to reflect and acknowledge your level of pain at each stage of grieving is equally important. It never goes away but it does get easier to manage.

  4. Stephen Genova says:

    Very timely article. This happened with a client of mine just this week. Thank you.

  5. Rachel says:

    When people have lost a friend or family member (even if it’s a four-legged furry one), I have made a donation to a charity that was meaningful to that person. Often times the donation has been to support research or other groups related to the specific loss the person has experienced. Flowers are thoughtful, and they are temporary. Donating to a cause can have a far greater and lasting impact.

  6. Deborah Wilbrink says:

    Ask “how can I help?” rather than state, “Let me know if I can do anything.”
    Sometimes all that is is needed is to listen quietly.

  7. Michelle Sim says:

    This may seem ‘old fashioned’ but if the person who has had the loss or preparing for a funeral is local, a meal brought to them is always appreciated..something in a container or even a beautiful casserole dish that does not need to be returned…just a gift, along with that personalized card.

  8. Trudy Van Buskirk says:

    I’m so glad that with “How can I help”, you’ve offered several things you can do but people who are grieving don’t always know what they need. Offer them some suggestions of things you can do for them. It can be something like cooking or grocery shopping for them so they eat, or babysitting their kids if they have young ones – you decide what to offer to do BUT do give them a bunch of choices.

  9. Stephanie Angelo says:

    The ex-husband of one of my group members died very unexpectedly. The two of them were still quite close and she was his “next of kin” for all health and legal matters and his executor. It was a huge emotional blow.
    We rallied around her as she cried in meetings and sent flowers as a group. It meant a lot.
    There’s a huge difference between an event and a person who uses the group as their personal counseling sessions.
    The good news is we’ve had more great things than bad happen – like births of babies, and marriages.
    As much as we are about business growth and development, we know we are still whole people.

  10. Alicia says:

    One thing that is different is to call the person on the phone and acknowledge their pain and give them space to talk. No one seems to call because Death is so difficult to deal with for everyone. When an associate’s husband died and I called her she said I was the only person to call. Everyone else texted or emailed. Simple but not easy.

  11. Jeffrey Blomberg says:

    If I did not know the person who passed, I ask the person(s) grieving to tell me the name of the person and something wonderful about them. As they share with me, I have see them transform from not being able to talk about, to experiencing that person, and I get to share their experience of that person too.

    Last week my sister lost three people to the virus and my sister-in-law lost ten patients in the last month. I have had clients and or family members who got infected.

    One way or another I think we will all be touched by this pandemic.

  12. Jules says:

    This was incredibly timely. I got an email from a client that his wife lost their child in the 3rd term of their pregnancy. These emails were next to each other. I am grateful for the community and for the ideas of how to help. Thank you for sharing!

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