Dear Etiquetteer: I'm applying to graduate school right now and a former manager wrote me a recommendation. I asked her in late May but she hadn't done so as of a few weeks ago when I submitted my application early. I nudged her gently over e-mail (as she said I should do in May), didn't get a response, nudged her a week later, and she wrote it up for me that night. This was about a week ago.
Today I found out her sister has just died of cancer, and she was almost certainly distracted by that. I knew her sister had been sick for awhile, but didn't know she was at this stage.
I don't regret how I handled the "nudging," because I did it respectfully and had given her a lot of time, and since she kept her problems private, I can't hold myself responsible for inadvertent awkwardness. My problem is I'd hoped to get her a bottle of wine or something similar to say thank you, but that seems inappropriate now; similarly, anything I could to memorialize her sister (like a donation to [redacted]) seems like it should not be linked in any way as a "thank you." What would you suggest I do?
A Lovely Note of Condolence is really the best way to acknowledge your colleague's loss as well as your thanks for her fulfillment of your request. Include something like "Your attention to my business school recommendation at a time when you must have been very concerned for your sister's health is doubly appreciated."
Wine would not be appropriate, but by all means send her a bouquet at some point. And if you're so inclined, a year from now you might make a memorial gift (should the family have specified a particular charity in the obituary). Etiquetteer suggests this length of time for two reasons. First, you want to avoid the appearance of a quid pro quo. Second, your relationship with your colleague will likely continue for many years, and she will be touched that you have chosen to remember her sister's death long after many others have forgotten.
As Etiquetteer writes this, Labor Day approaches, bringing with it the Official End of Summer. Ladies and gentlemen of Perfect Propriety will get as much wear as possible out of their white linen and white shoes this weekend before reverently folding them away -- with a tear -- until Memorial Day.
Etiquetteer is delighted to take your manners dilemmas at queries_at_etiquetteer_dot_com.