Colleague has just received some awful news - how to respond...

A colleague with whom I get on very well, although we are not "close", just found out yesterday that his baby died - his wife was 6 months pregnant.

I've been writing and rewriting a reply to him since about 7.30 this morning, and I have overthought it to the point where I feel like an android trying to replicate human feelings... I keep getting stuck on whether it is inappropriate / unhelpful / somehow self regarding to mention that I have some experience of this, the "ability to convey sympathy in an appropriate manner" part of my brain seems to have gone temporarily offline.  

I feel so awful for them, I know that I'm hyperaware of the magnitude of their loss (not to talk of the horror of the physical process his wife is going to have to endure) because of my own experiences, and through my mother (several late term miscarriages and 2 still births), and a good friend whose son died at 36 weeks, so I'm definitely making this more than it needs to be - I think I'm on about draft 15 of what will probably be a frigging 6 line email!

Is it crass or presumptuous to say that I have experience of this (no detail, obviously), and he can talk to me anytime?  I'm quite a bit older than him, and he has come to me for advice in the past, and often uses me as a sounding board / to vent (all work related).

Can someone please help reboot me so that I can send a normal, non-intrusive, empathetic response. 

Oh Cru.  How sad.  

Given what you have said about your relationship, I would offer to be there.  Keep it simple.


"X, I am so sorry to hear what you and Y are going through at the moment.  If there is anything I can do, or if I can be a listening ear, please let me know.  From my own experience of this a few years ago I know how tough it can be. Thinking of you.  Cru"

"Dear x,

I heard through the grapevine of your terrible loss - I am so sorry that this tragedy has happened to you and your wife, and also to your families and loved-ones.  I'm sure I am not alone in saying that I will be thinking of you both from time to time in the coming weeks and months.

In case it might be of any help I just wanted to let you know that I sadly have faced similar situations in the past, and if you ever wanted a sympathetic ear I would be very happy to offer mine, just as others offered theirs to me.

With greatest sympathy


I've been through this myself, and my gut reaction is that I wouldn't mention your experiences to them at this stage. That can come later. Keep it about them right now.

I am terrible at this but it is important to note your response alone is not going to help or make things worse (they are bad enough as it is).

Something along the lines of "sorry to hear that. I have experienced similar so if you want to talk let me know. Please take as much time as you and your family needs, work can wait and I'll cover what needs to be covered. Take care" 


Might sound strange to mention work but I think setting out that you have no expectations on when they will return and that their work is covered can actually help (well, that's what people have told me when I have covered their stuff in similar circumstances)

Less is more with these things imho. Expression of sorrow and offer of help if wanted is enough. I'd keep any personal detail out of an email - that is for later.

Sorry to hear this about you and your colleague.  Just say something.  He will appreciate it.  Just don't ignore it.

@Warren, he emailed us himself to let us know - his wife also works for the company.  Thank you all for the responses, much appreciated!  I really am thinking far too hard about this, and making a mountain out of a molehill. I shall stop fannying around, and just respond like the human person that I normally am.

I'd also go for the no mention of your own experiences approach while offering a sympathetic ear.  It doesn't need to be the perfect email I'd aim to get it out quick.  A couple of mates had their first born son die a fortnight after birth last year and I literally didn't know what to say for about three days and spent that time agonising about what to say in the perfect manner.

Nex - it's really is so so sad.  She had a hideous first trimester (such severe sickness that she ended up in hospital for a bit), and he told me that they had only recently started to "enjoy" the pregnancy.  And I know that, no matter what people tell you about not tempting fate, they will have started to prepare and buy stuff for the baby - when you are young and healthy, you, and all the people around you, just assume that you're home free once you get past the first 12 weeks.  And now she will have to go through labour knowing their baby has died - I can't get my head round how parents cope with that.

I'd specific in telling him what you went through, he's more likely to reach out.  Even "I have faced similar things" he'd probably be thinking yeah yeah she had an 8 wk miscarriage.  If you open up about what you've experience he's more likely to open up back....that's how I'd react as a macho bloke anyway but don't know him obv 

Cruella, I dont think it either crass or presumptuous to allude to your own experience much as you have suggested, though I would qualify it in some way by acknowledging that no two instances of the loss of a child are ever the same.

We sustained a 42 week stillbirth. Seeking out people who had an inkling of the trauma was a natural response at the time and I have good reason to think that compassionate letters that I have written in the intervening years (framed as I suggest) have helped others.

It is an acutely lonely time and informed voices carry a qualitatively somewhat different level of empathetic support.

It sounds as though he trusts you, and I wish you well in helping him at some level.


I am so sorry to hear about this. My heart goes out to both of you. If you want to talk, let me know. 

You mentioned he emailed us.

If it was a group email you are responding to, I would go with less is more in the email.

You possibly have more to offer than others, would sending a longer traditional letter not be better?

Your message is to both of them rather than a generic sorry to hear that response to just his email

Buzz - you're not wrong : I could totally see myself a week from now, still working on draft 327 of my email!  Anyway, email sent now.  Thanks again, all.

AR - it was to all of us in my company, but although we are part of a reasonably big group of companies, our particular division is small, we all know each other and his wife, I don't think there is anyone he wouldn't have told directly, so a group email isn't unusual.

Anyway, it occurred to me that there was something actually potentially useful I could offer - our HR  team, which is part of our parent company, has lots of form for being pretty much useless and lacking empathy in the way that only HR teams in big companies can be / do, so I've let him know that I'm happy to handle HR or act as a buffer for them, if necessary.

That sounds perfect, Cru. Dealing with HR for him I am sure will be welcome. 

I think there is a bit of a taboo about baby loss, but once one person starts talking about it in a group, it usually becomes apparent how many people have experienced it in some form (miscarriage/late loss/still birth) and it can be comforting to learn that you are not alone in what you are going through.  

There is no perfect thing to write.  

When I read the original post and those above, it brought me up short with reminder of similar loss.  As it's bound to do.  It was some time ago but that scratch was sharp.

I found myself trying to formulate a reply as I continued to read through the responses.  And was going to go with a "you're a good soul and no matter it will come across well and kind" but you smashed it with a practical rider. Brava.

To Cru, Prodders and all who have lost in such a way, you have my deepest sympathy.  


what they said, nothing you can say is going to be ok, but anything you say is going to be well received.  Unless you send a smiley face a la ROF.

I would usually opt for some sort of quote.

How about 2 Samuel 18:33

"Unless you send a smiley face a la ROF." Ha!

Minkie - no, they don't, I guess it's never come up.  And - maybe this sounds a bit odd - but I was "lucky" in that each of my 3 miscarriages happened in the first trimester, at 10, 11 and 12 weeks respectively so they "resolved" naturally and I didn't have to have any surgical intervention, I've always felt a bit like I couldn't be as upset about them as if I'd lasted longer, I know how much worse it might have been - I cannot imagine the horror of having to go through labour to give birth to a child you know is dead.  (Also, at the time, I got knocked up again very quickly each time, so there was never any time to dwell on them, and after the 3rd one, I decided to stop trying and then, you know, life happened, and I didn't let myself to think about them too often (although, of course, today, I feel like I've thought of little else!)).  I was a child at the time, but old enough with some of my mother's losses to get even a small idea of the devastation of late term loss, and stillbirth - she never got over them.

And then there was my friend who had already started her maternity leave when her son died - I remember seeing a message from her, expecting it to be a picture of her new baby, and it was a message saying her child had died, she was going in to deliver him, over and out.  We'd been having the usual "baby's nearly here, enjoy your last 2 weeks of freedom" chat probably 2 days before, I remember feeling like someone had punched me in the stomach when I read the message.

Compared to those sorts of horrific experiences, I've never felt I had the right to be heartbroken by my losses, to talk about them much.

There isn't a hierarchy of feelings, Cru.  I had a fairly early mc but it was after my first round of IVF and so much had gone into achieving that pregnancy - emotionally, physically and financially.

I'm sure this incident has brought back some difficult feelings for you.  It's ok to acknowledge that.



Yeah, Nexis - I know...  But I have managed to keep a lid on things for a long time now (mostly because of the relationship I have with my niece and nephew, there's no question that being able to be such a significant part of their lives is the reason I haven't regretted choosing not to keep trying, and not having my own children), but today's news has properly thrown me, I'm definitely feeling it!

Ho hum.  I can't even eat my feelings, as I am currently focused on not looking like a total pudding when I go on holiday in 6 weeks.  I think white wine might be the answer...

Cru, without going into details I've been through a similar cycle of things to you but throw in a sh t head of an ex and an abusive r'ship to boot as well as 2 years of horrible drugs and interventions with nothing to show for it n ow but regert and every announcement is so so hard, whether it's good or bad news, so I completely understand how difficult this is for you as well as you wanting to get the words right.

From my experiences, and reading some of the awful things say to both men and women in their situation (i.e. all the heartless oh just try again/ it wasn't meant to comments  - F right off) I would put something short and simple like -  you are thinking of them constantly and want them to know that you are there if they want to talk/ shout/ cry/ or just have a distracting glass of wine. You are so sorry for their loss and know it will be a difficult time for them for a while and you're there for them if they need you..... I think that would be a lovely message to get if you're not super close and it's non intrusive but shows support and care. I hope you feel better after that glass of wine.....I also gave up drinking when it happened to me and I do NOT advise that!!!! Sending a virtual hug.

** just seen that you've already sent an email - why not send him a card/ whats app/ carrier pigeon or whatever with what you want to say as a follow up. Also that's a lovely thing re dealing with Human Remains. My  HR dept are as effective as a chocolate teapot so I'd never both telling them anything remotely personal if I didn't want it round the office in 20 minutes flat. I only told my boss and begged her not to tell anyone else at work.