When I saw Laura rush out of the office with her coat over her arm one day last month, I assumed she was on her way to an impromptu showing. But then our branch manager Tom gathered us in the conference room and told us that Laura had just received a phone call from her father. Her younger sister Edie, the blonde woman from the hiking photo on her screensaver, had been in a car crash. Just like everyone here at the Farthing Lane branch of Steamboat Realty, I was shocked to the core. It's hard when a close relative of somebody you pretend to like dies so suddenly.

I barely remembered that Laura had a sister, so the news of her death was truly an unexpected blow for me. Returning to my desk, I took some deep breaths and tried to gather my wits. I'd been through situations like this before, but that didn't change the fact that a close relative of someone I pretend to like was gone forever.

Let me give a little background. I started pretending to like Laura Herron shortly after she came aboard the Steamboat in 1999. I mustered some phony enthusiasm when she made the third-highest closing in branch history, and when Tom made her assistant branch manager, I organized a dinner in her honor. I acted like I was thrilled when her daughter was born, and I overcame the impulse to roll my eyes when she told me the baby's name was Duffy. On every one of her birthdays, I bought the staff card, and my inscriptions were always the most cordial and the least sincere. So, when Laura's sister died, there was no way for me to get around "being there for her."

I had to take it day by day—one afternoon I mailed a card, another day I left a voicemail message on her business line. I didn't push myself too hard. I knew that if I overdid my expressions of sympathy, Laura might sense that they were contrived. It wasn't easy, but I managed to make it through the dark days of Laura's emergency leave of absence.

Laura's first day back was a real challenge, though. I knew I had to show some sympathy beyond cards and flowers, but what? After giving it a lot of thought, I decided that I would hand-deliver all her mail to her desk. A sympathetic nod as I handed her an orderly stack of unopened mail would have been the perfect way to say, "You're in my thoughts, but I'm not going to make a big show of that, as I know you probably just want to get back to normal." Well, life doesn't always go as planned. When I walked into the mailroom, whose sad puss do you think I was greeted by? I couldn't believe Laura had beaten me to the office. I'm always in first! But I shrugged it off, took a deep breath, and gave her a big hug. It was very difficult, because I've always been disgusted by her bony frame and cloying perfume.

Laura smiled and thanked me, but I knew it wasn't over. I'd have to say something, too. "I know that anything I say is going to sound inadequate," I told Laura, doing everything I could to make my voice sound calm and genuinely concerned. "But please believe me when I say we've all been thinking about you, and if there's anything we can do for you to make things easier, let us know." Laura's face lightened a little. "Thank you, Bonnie, that's very nice," she said. "It's not inadequate. I appreciate it." It was really hard to stand there and hold eye contact with her after that, but I steeled myself. I relaxed the muscles at my temples, looked right into her eyes, and counted to 10. Boy! That one took it out of me.

Back at my desk, I sent an e-mail to everyone in the office, careful to omit Laura. "Hey gang," I wrote. "Laura is back, so be sure to stop in and pay your respects today. I spent some time with her, but I'm sure she'd appreciate your words of sympathy and support, as well." I have to tell you, typing that e-mail was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I can't tell you how many times I checked the recipients list to make sure Laura wasn't on it! Let alone the effort I put into getting the wording of those six sentences just right. By the time I had that e-mail typed up, I was emotionally exhausted. I took myself out to a long, long lunch.

I won't lie: It's been a rough couple weeks for me. And the tough part is far from over. I'll have to pat Laura's hand at some point, and I might even have to hold it if she starts to cry. I may end up having to say "Everything will be okay," when I know it won't. It's going to be a trying time, but I'll make it through. Why? Because I don't have any other choice. That's life.