Q. A colleague’s elderly mother just died, and I wonder if it’s appropriate to route a sympathy card to the entire department so people can express their condolences. I’m also thinking of asking about making a donation in the mother’s name. What’s the proper etiquette in a situation like this?
A. Ordinarily, people should send their own individual condolence cards or notes. But this is different because some coworkers might not send any sympathy message at all if you weren’t making it so easy for them. Condolence notes are the hardest ones to write, and people dread the chore. Unless they’re close to the bereaved, they may procrastinate, or just forget the whole thing. There’s also something nice about the camaraderie of acquaintances and casual friends signing a group card. Those who have a closer relationship with the mourner (or just feel something more personal is called for) should send their own separate condolence message, whether or not they sign the joint card.
An individual card or note is also appropriate (and smart) if the mourner is an important customer, client or contact. People do appreciate any condolences they receive, but your thoughtfulness in writing your own note will stand out and be remembered. Why not make a good impression?
Asking for the donation is trickier. (Money is always tricky.) I would decide where the donation will be made (to a charity, cause, place of worship, school, etc.) The obituary usually mentions where contributions can be sent. If there is no mention (or no obituary), I’d ask the bereaved colleague for suggestions unless the person has a good friend at the office who might know. Or if you’re aware of the cause of the mother’s death, such as a heart attack or cancer, you could send the donation to something like the American Heart Association or Cancer Care. Wording is important here. You might say in your cover memo, “Anyone who wishes to make a donation to (name of charity or institution) in memory of (name of deceased) can do so.” Or if you plan to send one donation for all contributors, you can say, “If you wish to make a donation, see Bob Jones, who will handle it.” The point is, you want contributions to be completely voluntary. Otherwise, people may feel pressured to participate, which can cause resentment. Good luck with this. It’s complicated, but a worthy effort.
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Florence Isaacs is the author of several books on etiquette, including My Deepest Sympathies: Meaningful Sentiments for Condolence Notes a.... She writes two advice blogs for Legacy.com: Sincere Condolences and Widow in the World, a new blog for bereaved spouses and partners.
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