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January 15, 2010 2:30 PM   Subscribe

I need to send an email to someone I don't know very well about a death. Please help me...

Background: I recently started a new job. One of my responsibilities is to attend board meetings. At our last meeting, the newest board member was introduced. I have interacted with her before (at a social function for the org. I work for) and our interactions are friendly but professional. In other words she is not my BFF and our conversations generally are around the org. I work for. We are currently working on a project together and in the midst of that, her Dad died. She tells me this in an email and cancels a meeting we were supposed to have. The Executive Director wants me to ask about funeral arrangements but I'm having a hard time composing this email! I don't know, it doesn't feel right just flat out asking "have you made funeral arrangements yet? We wanna come" Am I just being a pussified dweeb or is there a way to ask this without it offending or sending her into a fit of tears or better yet, having to deal people who she'd rather not be there? Please help me. Thanks
posted by Hydrofiend to Human Relations (23 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

We at YYYYYY were terribly upset to hear about your loss. Have you made any funeral arrangement's yet?

Kindest Regards,

posted by BobbyDigital at 2:32 PM on January 15, 2010

Yeah something simple is best.

Dear [Person],

We are so sorry for your loss and would like to pay our respects. Have you made any funeral arrangements yet?

Kindest Regards or My Condolences etc.

[Your Name]
posted by Kimberly at 2:36 PM on January 15, 2010

Dear board member,

I'm so sorry to hear about your father. Everyone here at XX org is thinking of you and your family.

Of course, don't worry about our project. I will keep working on [my part of it], and I look forward to continuing our project together whenever you are ready.

Please let us know about funeral arrangements.

Again, I'm so sorry for your loss,
posted by purpleclover at 2:37 PM on January 15, 2010 [34 favorites]

You want purpleclover's phrasing ("please let us know") rather than the more direct "have you". It's slightly less blunt and easier to shrug off if she feels like not responding.
posted by PercussivePaul at 2:39 PM on January 15, 2010 [10 favorites]

In the past, when a close family member died, I was asked several times for this information, just like this. I knew it was for flowers/visitation and the request was not an imposition. She will be receiving several requests just like this. I would agree that it is much more tactful to say "please let us know about funeral arrangements".
posted by raisingsand at 2:44 PM on January 15, 2010

I love purpleclover's approach, but I would personally change the phrase "have you made funeral arrangements" to something like:

"I know I speak on behalf of myself and several of our colleagues when I say we would like to show our support for you by attending the funeral service. Please let me know once the service is scheduled, and I will pass along the information to those who have asked."
posted by bunnycup at 2:45 PM on January 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Hydrofiend: “Am I just being a pussified dweeb or is there a way to ask this without it offending or sending her into a fit of tears or better yet, having to deal people who she'd rather not be there?”

When people are in that state, it's usually nicest to have (a) support, even from professional colleagues, and (b) a direct and simple expression of that support, so they don't have to guess what you're trying to say or do.

My advice?

First, don't write an email, if you can help it. She wrote you an email because it was the easiest thing to do, and because she wanted to get it done, and for whatever reasons she might have - but a direct phone call would be a good way to get in touch with her because it would mean that you're interested and invested enough in how she's doing to want to talk to her directly.

Second, whether you call her or write an email, the important thing to do is to be supportive in a simple and direct way. As BobbyDigital points out, this doesn't have to be complex; you're probably overthinking it.

You really should just say something to the effect of: "We're all very sorry to hear about your loss. Have funeral arrangements been made? Please know that we'd like to offer you every support and comfort we can during this difficult time." Remember: the key is to let her know that you're willing to be there for her without implying that you'd insist on being there for her in a certain way. I understand that you're hesitant to say "when's the funeral, because we'd like to come?" but that's why you leave it open-ended; just don't say "we'd like to come." Leave it up to her, and simply let her know in general terms that you'd all like to be there for her in whatever way she feels most comfortable with.
posted by koeselitz at 2:46 PM on January 15, 2010

"I know I speak on behalf of myself and several of our colleagues when I say we would like to show our support for you by attending the funeral service. Please let me know once the service is scheduled, and I will pass along the information to those who have asked

+1 for bunnycup. Offering to be the conduit for information is a good idea.
posted by purpleclover at 2:55 PM on January 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

This is only my personal experience, but when I've been in this situation, I've often been surrounded by people who are walking on eggshells, and who are trying so hard to be tactful that it's often impossible for them to speak coherently to me. Personally, I would much, much rather just hear "have funeral arrangements been made?" than have someone try to be tactful about it.
posted by koeselitz at 2:56 PM on January 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would call. Chances are she won't be in the office due to the circumstance and you could perhaps inquire with her assistant.
posted by cecic at 2:56 PM on January 15, 2010

Very simple.

Call her! Be a human, express empathy, and when the opportunity arise, ask her the necessary details.

Emails just wouldn't cut it!
posted by jchaw at 2:59 PM on January 15, 2010

Also, I wouldn't want business associates that I had only recently met of mine at my father's funeral. I would want to be surrounded by people who knew and loved him. Perhaps you might suggest to the Executive Director that you send flowers from your organization or ask if a donation can be made to a charity in his honor. In fact, that may be what he was suggesting when he asked you to find out the details (I hope) rather than wanting to go.
posted by cecic at 3:01 PM on January 15, 2010 [6 favorites]

If you have any power over whether to mention the funeral at all, cecic's advice is good. Who would want their co-workers (especially brand-new ones) attending their dad's funeral? (The more appropriate thing to do is giving her a card, signed by all of you, with a general offer to help in any way you can, not trying to self-invite the whole staff to an intensely personal family gathering.) But if you really can't second-guess your superior's instructions, I'd go with bunnycup's message. She can always just not respond (although you'd still be putting her in an awkward position). I would not say something as terse as "Please let us know about the funeral arrangements" or "Have you made funeral arrangements?" without clarifying why you want to know this information.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:36 PM on January 15, 2010

I think an email is much more appropriate. When my mom died last year, I was so swamped with details of funeral arrangements, trying to organize my family and, you know, grieving, that I simply refused to take phone calls. If it was a close friend, I'd have my boyfriend answer, but other than that, everyone went straight to voice mail and I didn't even listen to the voicemails for about a week. Most people either sent flowers or an email if they weren't coming to the services, but I honestly felt that the phone calls were very intrusive and I was a little put off by them. Emails allowed me to reply in my own time, when I was able to.

Something simple works, like the suggestions above. I'd also suggest adding a line that says something to the effect of "Please let us know if there's anything we can do for you." It doesn't mean much and of course, it's unlikely that she'll take you up on the offer, but for me, it was very comforting knowing that people were willing to help.
posted by amandarose at 3:46 PM on January 15, 2010

Thanks everyone! I bit the bullet and sent an email. I had an issue with the word "funeral" not sure why. Maybe thinking using that word would make her feel uncomfortable? A call, in this situation, would not be appropriate. Besides other factors, she's not a phone person and I knew she would feel like she had to return a call. Right now, she doesn't need that pressure. She responded promptly, however, with her address for us to send stuff. Thanks again!
posted by Hydrofiend at 4:06 PM on January 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Nthing that e-mail would be less intrusive than a phone call, and "please let us know about the funeral arrangements" would be better than "have you made funeral arrangements?"

Funeral arrangements are not just for those who wish to attend, it's also where you would send flowers, which would be completely appropriate for the organization to do.
posted by desuetude at 4:08 PM on January 15, 2010

Oh, too late. But hey, good job.
posted by desuetude at 4:09 PM on January 15, 2010

I think it is a courtesy not to attend such an intimate/personal gathering of someone you just know professionally unless they make the first move and invite you in a very definite way . Asking about the funeral arrangement, implying in any way even the subtlest should be avoided.

I would say the same thing applies to weddings too.
posted by neworder7 at 4:37 PM on January 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I am surprised by people who feel it is intrusive to show up at a funeral service for a relative of someone that you know and work with. I think a large crowd shows respect for the deceased and the family. You can come, sign the guest book, sit in the back and not disturb the family. At least for me, that would show caring and concern with intruding on my grief.
posted by metahawk at 8:26 PM on January 15, 2010

Coming in after OP's update.... is the ED closer to her? If so, I think s/he should have been the one to ask rather than fobbing it off on you.
posted by brujita at 11:47 PM on January 15, 2010

brujita: Very good point.
That's exactly why co-workers (or anybody) should be excluded from such a personal gathering, if they are not personally involved with her. They probably think it is courteous to do so rather than genuine care for the person in mourning.
posted by neworder7 at 1:51 AM on January 16, 2010

Funeral announcements are traditionally published in the paper as an obituary -- it's not usually private information. As she is a member of the Board, it would be totally customary for the organization to send a funeral flower arrangement.

There are a lot of conventions with funeral arrangements through which the family can express their preferences. If the person did have a public life, people who are not otherwise close to the family would want to pay their respects. In these cases, I personally prefer to go to the viewing, rather than the funeral, if one is held (and a viewing counts as part of "funeral arrangements," as does a preferred charity, etc.)

If the family truly wishes that the funeral be invite-only, they would usually say "a private service will be held during the week" or something to that effect.

I've been to a few too many funerals and viewings in the last ten years, including some in support of co-workers. I've never heard any of them be anything but touched that a professional colleague would take time out to attend a viewing or funeral. If someone is moved to go, they should go. On the other hand, no-one should feel that they should attend purely as a professional obligation.
posted by desuetude at 10:44 AM on January 16, 2010

When a family member dies it is (of course) a very intense experience and the death and surrounding rituals become the most absorbing thing. Talking about the practicalities of the death including using otherwise ghastly vocabulary, such as "funeral" become temporarily normal. I think that this is a lot of the reason why almost all cultures have a lot of ritual and ceremony around death. The activities of laying a person to rest become the activities that help the mourners get through it, so, in this case, talking about the funeral will be a temporarily normal topic of conversation for this person. Talking about someone's Dad's funeral would be dreadful if the Dad was still alive but if he has just died then it is temporarily appropriate. The bereaved is for the time being thinking of nothing but the death so you aren't going to be shocking or ambushing her by using words like "funeral". (Of course you are right to be trying to be sensitive.)
posted by y6t5r4e3w2q1 at 8:20 PM on January 17, 2010

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