A Monday morning can be rough for any of us. You slept through your alarm, spilled coffee on your shirt, and hit every red light on the way to work. What a way to start the week. Now imagine what it looks like for someone who is coming back to work after a loss. All of those things you faced in your morning, they faced, too. And on top of that, someone they loved very, very much just died.
Your typical Monday morning chit-chat can suddenly take a turn for the worse, before you even have a chance to turn on your laptop.
You: (smiling)“How was your vacation?”
Sara: (not smiling)“Um…I wasn’t on vacation.”
You: (still hanging on to that smile)“You’ve been out for two weeks…did you at least do anything fun?”
Sara: (tearing up) “No. My husband died.”
Hard to tell if it’s you or Sara that feels more uncomfortable in that exact moment. After an awkward pause, you may mutter something like “I’m so sorry” and then slink away to hide in your office. You’re not a bad person, just human, and it can be hard for any of us to know what to say or do when a coworker experiences a death in their family. While there are no perfect answers, there are some things you can do (and not do) to make things a little easier on everyone.
An important first step when you find out about a coworker’s loss is to do a quick emotional self-check. What are you feeling? Are you sad for them, because they are dealing with this? Are you sad for yourself, remembering losses you have faced? Maybe you’re even scared – if it happened to them, it could happen to you. All of these are normal, appropriate ways to feel. Recognizing where you stand emotionally can help you to determine when and how you are able to reach out to support your coworker.
Another thing to consider is what your relationship looked like with your coworker prior to their loss. If you had been close to the coworker before, continue to offer the support that you would have offered for any bad day. Imagine the coworker had a car wreck and totaled her vehicle. How would you have responded? Would you have given her a hug, bought a latte for her, or sent an email to check in? Doing what you’ve always done and what comes naturally to you is usually a safe bet. While a death is much more serious than a wrecked car, you can still base your actions and words on what is “typical” for your relationship with that person. When I am close with someone, my preference is always to let them tell me what they need or don’t need. With some people, you can just ask. With others, you may need to just be mindful of their reactions to things, and try to be respectful of what seems to make them the most comfortable.
If you had not been particularly close to your coworker prior to their loss, you have a few options. You can choose to do nothing, and to not directly recognize the loss. While I wouldn’t normally suggest this, it may be what is most true to the relationship, (or lack of relationship,) you have with that person. In a very large office environment, it wouldn’t be unusual for certain employees to hardly know some of their coworkers, and to not feel comfortable reaching out to offer or recieve support following a loss. A slightly better option is to do something small, and indirect. Send a card, make a donation in honor of their loved one, or leave a note on their desk. None of these things require personal interaction, but still express that you are thinking of them and recognize their loss. Never underestimate the power of a genuine and warm smile, even in a passing moment. We aren’t all best friends with everyone in our offices, but a warm smile beats someone avoiding your gaze every time, especially when you are grieving.
Something to remember is that work can be either a refuge or a battlefield for people who are grieving. Some find the “escape” of work to be calming, letting them focus their energy and attention on something that they know is consistent. For others, just getting to work may prove to be a monumental task. A grieving wife who was used to chatting with her husband while applying her makeup may now find the act lonely and hollow, and be unable to get through it without crying. A grieving father who used to drop his son off at daycare may now find the silence in his car deafening, and be an emotional wreck by the time he arrives to work. We often will not and cannot know what our coworkers truly face when they face a loss.
What we do know is our own capability to act and show support. Whatever the individual and their family are facing, there are some things that remain constant, and those are some of the easiest things you can do to help. You could offer support by pitching in on day-to-day work activities, like offering to help run copies of a report you know they are rushing to hand off to a supervisor. A group of employees can chip in to buy gift cards for restaurants that offer delivery service to make dinner time easier. Or you may just offer to pick up lunch or coffee from time to time. As long as the offer is genuine, they are likely to appreciate it, even if they don’t take you up on it.
Of course, there are a few big DON’Ts in situations like these. Don’t ask someone who has lost a spouse when they are going to start dating again. Don’t ask someone who has lost a child if they are going to try to have another. If they want to share things like this, they will do so in their own time. You can offer that you have also experienced loss, and empathize, but don’t say “You have it bad, but I (or someone else) had it so much worse.” You may think that will help them to put their loss into perspective, but I promise you it will not. Their loss is likely one of the most traumatic events of their life, and they should not be asked to compare that to someone else’s “most traumatic event.”
You may find that your first attempt at reaching out does not feel “right” to you. Don’t let that deter you from finding another way to show your support. The truth is, showing sympathy is something that can take a little practice, and something that changes with each unique situation. The only times I have felt truly bad about how I responded to someone else’s loss are the times when I have decided to do nothing at all. Even a clumsy attempt at showing support can mean the world to someone who is struggling. And remember, grief does not go away after a few weeks, months, or even years. Recognize that grief is a journey that most people continue throughout their lives. That card, cup of coffee, and warm smile will be just as appreciated next month as it would have been last month. Regardless of the timing or vehicle, showing compassion in your own way is always a good work ethic.