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I'm currently enrolled in graduate school. I've been having a lot of trouble getting in touch with my advisor recently. He finally responded with apologies that he has been dealing with a terminally ill family member.

I want to make him feel that I understand what is going on, without being uncomfortably personal. We're not very close, but he's a very kind person and has given me helpful feedback in the past. I would like to build our relationship further.

What I thought of, without knowing if it could be (in)appropriate:

  1. expressing my condolences
  2. a phone call or email, to his work number/mail (without knowing if this is in order or if it will be unwanted at this time)
  3. refrain from more contact with him until this situation is over

What is the proper etiquette to deal with this situation, that would allow me to let this professor know I understand without being uncomfortably personal?

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  • There's a lot of info that would be helpful. A location tag would help understand the culture - different cultures respond differently to death. Are you close? Different cultures also have power differentials between student/professor. I suspect this will be closed as a phrasing request so I'd also suggest defining a course of action and then getting help on that. – baldPrussian Apr 16 at 14:47
  • Thank you @baldPrussian. I edited my question. I also added a location tag and removed the email tag. I'm new to this site so if I need to edit further, please let me know! – Scruffy Apr 16 at 14:57
  • Hi Scruffy. I've too made a pretty heavy edit in order to remove the "should I" parts. Like @baldPrussian mentioned, it could still be closed as off-topic anyway, I don't know if my best will be enough and save this post :) Please feel free to edit again or rollback. – OldPadawan Apr 16 at 15:05
  • Hey Scruffy! Nice edit, I've got a few more questions: Did he tell you about this problem over e-mail? If you were to e-mail, what would you write? If you were to call, what would you say? Do you have his 'work' mail/number and would you be using that, or a personal mail/number? – Tinkeringbell Apr 16 at 15:07
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    @Tinkeringbell, due to COVID, we've been virtual all year. As I started grad school at the beginning of this year, most of our communication has been via email, with some interaction over the phone, as well as Zoom and the like. He communicated this to me over email. Either way, I would be contacting him via his 'work' mail/number. I think that a call by nature would allow me to get a bit more personal, but that may be unwanted at this time. If I email him, I would probably express a similar message, but it would be easier for him to ignore if he wishes to do so now. – Scruffy Apr 16 at 15:18
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Back when I was in college and grad school, I knew my advisors but weren't very close with them. I suspect you're in a similar situation.

Were this me, I'd respond with an e-mail response along the lines of "I'm very sorry to hear that! Please let me know if there's anything I can do". That seems to be the social norm in the US so it would not come as unexpected. Given the relationship I experienced in school, I think a phone call would be seen as.. obtrusive from someone I barely knew during a very challenging time. A card, sent to their office, would also be appropriate.

Right now is probably not the time to attempt to further your relationship. Your advisor is most likely walking through the grief process and has a lot on his/her mind. If there's nothing that would help, they probably don't want to hear it right now. I know I wouldn't!

There's a certain level of distance between advisor and advisee so I wouldn't expect the professor to confide much in you regarding their level of grief. After the family member's life ends, there will be opportunities - but this needs to be handled with deep levels of respect for where your professor is at in the grieving process. If they're deep into the anger phase, for instance, you could wind up being the recipient of their anger without having done anything. That said, everyone grieves differently and some people cherish an element of normalcy during a very challenging time.

tl/dr: an e-mail is fine. I'd even suggest sending a sympathy card.

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  • Thank you for your thoughtful response! I like the idea of a sympathy card as well. – Scruffy Apr 16 at 15:34
  • I'm accepting your answer because it is specifically relevant to my situation in school, although I appreciated OldPadawan's comments as well. – Scruffy Apr 18 at 16:11
  • @Scruffy Yeah, there's a reason that OldPadawan's got a score of 20K on this SE. :) I like reading the info provided by that user and respect the answers provided. I can't think of too many times I've commented on OldPadawan's answers with a suggested improvement. – baldPrussian Apr 19 at 13:29
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When living in the US, I noticed that there were no differences between cultures when it comes to the loss of someone: people are affected by the loss, and it takes time to heal. During the mourning process, people can be sad, tired, depressed and so on... Expressing can be very different though. Many european countries I know have the same "etiquette", and it seemed to me that they are very similar to the ones in the US.

In the case of death, when consolation is not possible, just to let the bereaved know that you care is doing your best. Offer your own words in the most considerate, genuine, kind, and courteous manner.1

Also said, keep in mind the "3 C rule" : Compassion, Courtesy, Common sense. Show that you care with an expression of sorrow, and keep it as simple as possible. Beware of:

  1. unsolicited advice.
  2. words meant to “cheer up” or encourage.
  3. words of clichéd wisdom or of your own experience.2

I've been taught that you should say or write very very little, and be very careful not to do too much. The worst I've ever heard was : "I know how you feel...". No, you don't! No one knows, we're all different. We have suffered the same thing, it doesn't mean we feel or react the same way.

In your case, nothing personal, keep it "professional", so very very simple, on a card or note:

I'm so sorry to learn about [family member]. If there's anything I can do, please let me know.

I'm not writing emails because I think there's nothing appropriate you can write in the "object" case. I send a simple card. You can send this to his office.

Even if this is affecting your work, and you struggle, look for alternatives measures, channels or strategies, avoid bothering the person who just lost someone (or is dealing with serious illness).

Even when attending a funeral, I would not go beyond this. It can be said or written, I've always done that for the ones that I knew (or not), family, coworkers, relatives or acquaintances.

Always keep it short and simple, don't add anything to their pain.


1 2 Candace Smith Etiquette -- Emily Post Etiquette -- Indeed / message of condolence (because it's almost a professional background in your case, so examples can be useful)

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  • Thank you for the helpful link! – Scruffy Apr 18 at 16:09

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