I have a student assistant, who only works 10 hours a weak, mostly from home. She only comes to my office when there is something we need to discuss. Her contract specify the amount of work hours, and we track it.
When she was here last time, she got a message. Her grandmother lay in dying. She was so distressed, I just sent her home to call her family. The next day, she sent me an e-mail. She had flown to her family, and wouldn't come back before the end of the week. As she has exams the next two weeks, she won't be able to work before the 26. this month. She promised to eliminate the resulting hour debt next month.
What she probably forgot is that I am going on vacation and after that on conference, starting on the 29, and will be away for a whole month. So not only will it be hard for her to work enough next month as she would soon hit a point where she won't be able to proceed without me, we'd need to meet before I go, so I can give her as much work as possible to work on. I understand her decision and feel for her loss, but I still have to communicate with her now in order to arrange a meeting for this short time window between the 26. and 29. I can't leave it out and expect that she will just come to my office when she is back, because this is not how we work. And I find it very hard to do write it.
First, it has to be an e-mail. With her away, I have no other means to contact her. This is already unpleasantly impersonal. But second, it just feels awful. She is home, waiting for her grandmother's death or maybe already mourning, and probably feeling guilty for abruptly leaving her work and collecting a debt in work hours, and then comes an e-mail from me arranging a meeting. I just don't know how to write it without appearing cold-hearted. Any ideas what I could do to avoid it?
And third, I don't even know what social conventions to follow. Of course, I would want to include some supportive words to show her that I care and understand. If she had had a message about the grandmother's death, I could have sent her my condolences. But this would probably be terrible if the old lady is still alive, in a critical condition. On the other hand, a wish for speedy recovery also sounds terribly mocking. I can't find a way to formulate it.
I am very inexperienced in such a situation. Not only is this the first time I am managing somebody, I have also never lived through a death within my closer relations, and neither have I been part of a team with a co-worker losing a relative. How should I handle the situation now?