Etiquette Tips for Dealing with Tragedy

September 17, 2001, 12:00 AM EDT

By Suzanne Ito

No New Yorker has gone untouched by the events that have unfolded in our city, and knowing what to say to clients and colleagues over the coming weeks will be difficult. The following are some suggestions from business etiquette professionals on sending condolences, and some advice on holding a company memorial service for the families of the victims.

Ann Marie Sabath, founder of business etiquette school At Ease Inc. urges sending condolences in the form of a handwritten note or even an email. “Phone calls are very intrusive,” she says. The bereaved don't need the additional task of making polite conversation with people on the phone asking how they're doing--especially if they're having the same conversation several times a day. “Everyone needs to be respectful of each other,” she continues. If you must call, make it quick, and “find out what that person or company needs and provide that to the best of your ability. Just do something that will make a difference for the people who are suffering--as soon as possible.”

Whether you run a large company that has a long-standing relationship with another company that has suffered losses, or a small business that wishes to express sympathy to a client or colleague, experts suggest donations to relief charities rather than flowers. “Right now, flowers are superfluous, specially when there's such a need for donations,” says Dorothea Johnson, founder of the Protocol School of Washington. Find out what charities the company regularly donates to, or donate to the Red Cross, which has been one of the leaders of the relief effort since early Tuesday. (For more suggestions, check out our Where to Donate Money list.)

And how much do you donate? “It depends on your relationship with the company and how generous you can be at this time,” Johnson says. She suggests you donate the amount in the person or company's name, and send a note on your company's letterhead explaining a donation has been made in their name and list the amount.

Sabath also suggests that initial contacts be followed up a few weeks later, to let the bereaved know you're still thinking about them. If you want to send flowers, do it at this time to accompany the note.

On a more personal level, if someone close to you has suffered a loss, there are ways you can help out aside from the condolences and donations. Event planners have organizational skills that can be very helpful in such times. Mary Mitchell, the business etiquette columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, says, “In the days following the death of a loved one, the survivors have many responsibilities: Organizing a funeral, taking over the unfinished business of the person who is gone, and juggling their own everyday responsibilities.” Lending a hand for tasks that don't have to be done by the bereaved themselves frees them up for more important tasks. Making phone calls to invite people to a memorial service, writing the funeral program or arranging the space are some of the things that can be done to help out.

A memorial can be held anywhere: Outdoors in a park, in an office, hotel or a restaurant. But don't use a funeral home for a corporate service, says Johnson. As for the substance of the memorial itself, Johnson suggests that the head of the company speak. “It will create a sense of unity, and show that the people at the top care,” she says. Providing refreshments following the ceremony is also appropriate.

It's difficult to know how to act when a tragedy such as this strikes so many people at the same time, but it's still important to display some knowledge of mourning practices among different cultures. For a quick, helpful rundown of the major religions' bereavement practices, peruse About.com's article, The Etiquette of Funerals and Mourning Rituals. And Beliefnet.com's section on Spiritual & Religious Beliefs about Death offers several articles dealing with various faiths' approach to death and mourning customs.

Posted 09.17.01

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