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A colleague has returned to work after spending several months away to take care of her ill child. During this time, I took over some of her duties. She has returned and responsibilities have returned to normal.

I have a feeling that it would be good form to ask her how her child is doing, but I'm really not interested and it probably shows.

Should I still ask and pretend to be interested, or is it more appropriate to not bring the subject up?

Situation in Sweden. Asking for a friend.

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32

An ill child is already a bit of a landmine; she may want to avoid the topic entirely. Other people are probably asking all the time, so you don't have to worry about her having no opportunity to discuss it. You're fine not asking.

However, if you care about your colleague as a close coworker, consider asking her how she is doing. Having an ill child is a difficult situation, and she may be interested in some support from a colleague for herself without having the sympathy focused around the child.

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That she had to stop working for multiple months in order to care for a sick child shows that their child's illness was severe. To be frank, in Western cultures if you have any ongoing relationship with her this is something which you do need to care about. Not necessarily very much, but it is important to have and display empathy to a level appropriate to the relationship.

Depending on how deep a relationship you have with her, these sorts of things would be appropriate:

  • DO ask, at an appropriate time, how her child is going now. Be aware, as other answers have raised, that she might be swamped with such questions
  • DO ask her how she is feeling herself, as well as her partner/spouse (if she has one)
  • DO say empathetic things like "it must have been a very tough time"

But...

  • DON'T say you understand exactly what she's been through
  • DON'T say you'll be there for her if you don't mean it
  • DON'T say you'll pray (or whatever) if you won't
  • DON'T say "we should catch up" if you don't want to
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No.

People see through fake sympathy pretty well. Ignoring whether she wants to talk about it and the potential problems there, you're likely to convey this fake sympathy and that will not be beneficial.

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