The Foreign Service Journal, November 2011

34 F O R E I G N S E R V I C E J O U R N A L / N O V E M B E R 2 0 1 1 A lmost all of us in the Foreign Service have gone through the experience of losing loved ones while living vast distances from home. My father was seriously ill dur- ing my tour in Germany and died the day after I arrived at my next post in Tel Aviv. Both my mother and sister passed away while I was living in Oslo. And most recently, my mother-in-law died while I was here in Ottawa. At some posts, the love and care I received from colleagues carried me through the waves of grief in a cocoon of comfort and security. But at other embassies, barely anyone acknowl- edged my loss, making a difficult pe- riod even more sad and isolating. I have often said that the Foreign Service is a wonderful career — until a family member gets ill or dies. Then this has to be the worst job in the world. In most cases, the vast geo- graphic distance from a relative who is ill or dying exacerbates our worry, making us almost crazed with con- cern. Nearly 15 years later, I can still vividly remember trying to give my mother as much support as I could through daily calls as my father’s ill- ness dragged on and on. I would hang up the phone after listening to an- other report of his slipping away by inches, and sit stunned in emotional exhaustion. If any of you reading this have not suffered this experience yet, you will at some point. Death is a part of life. And so I would like to offer a few pointers from my own experience on what to do when a colleague loses a close friend or family member — es- pecially while serving overseas. Acknowledge your colleague’s loss. It is not easy for most people to do this — what are the correct words to use? Fortunately, it doesn’t matter. You do not have to be Shakespeare or a trained grief counselor. The impor- tant thing is that you explicitly recog- nize the loss that is causing your colleague pain, and you are there for him or her. Period. What is the worst thing that can happen? Either the co-worker you are consoling will mumble some ac- knowledgment in embarrassment and turn away, or might shed a tear or two. Can you handle that? Remember: This is not about you. It is about giv- ing comfort to another human being who is experiencing the same pain that you have already felt, or will suf- fer in the future. Let me add that I am probably one of the most stalwart, businesslike peo- ple you could ever encounter. (I don’t even keep any personal pictures on my desk.) I believe that we are to focus on professional issues while at work, and personal matters should re- main at home. However, I also realize that these lines of distinction blur for those of us in the Foreign Service and living overseas, away from family and friends back home. So it is unavoid- able that one must turn to colleagues in a way that would not happen if liv- ing in the U.S. When a relative of mine died and a colleague at post said a simple word of comfort and put a hand on my arm while passing me in the hall, his sin- cere act of caring brought tears even to my eyes. They were tears of simple gratitude that another human being took the time to acknowledge the pain I was experiencing. Is it so onerous for you to be one of those caring peo- ple? The impression you might make on a colleague in need of human con- tact may be far greater than you ever imagined. Notify the community liaison offi- cer at post if you learn that the loved one of a colleague or spouse has died. The CLO is trained to jump into ac- tion for embassy staff in need — by organizing dinners to be delivered to Helping a Colleague Cope with the Death of a Loved One B Y J OAN B. O DEAN Don’t worry about finding the right words to acknowledge a colleague’s loss. Just express your sympathy and say you’re there for him or her. J OURNAL Editor S TEVE H ONLEY ’ S C lassic P icks FSJ J ULY -A UGUST 2007 FS K NOW -H OW