Grief in the Workplace

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.

Photo Credit.

http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en


16 Comments:

  1. Bill said on January 21, 2011 at 4:39 pm ... #

    Don’t know why I never thought of the office/work context before. Very helpful suggestions and sensitive to the nature of the relationship. I know of three such losses among business clients. I have referred, and just today, associates to this website. –Thanks!

  2. Danielle said on January 21, 2011 at 5:20 pm ... #

    Great article with some really good ideas, Alisha! Even the simplest gesture can have a huge impact. On 9/11, I worked with someone whose brother worked in tower 2. I hardly knew him, so I just left a brief note on his desk to express support. That tiny thing to me was HUGE to him – we’ve been close ever since.

  3. Jennifer said on January 21, 2011 at 6:15 pm ... #

    I am a nurse and work in a hospital. When my husband died, not at my own hospital, there had been several losses that same month. We all just kind of didn’t know what to do for each other. This is a great article. Don’t give me platitudes, just give me a smile and a hug if you’re comfortable.

  4. Dana said on May 20, 2011 at 4:44 am ... #

    hi , I was wondering if you would give us permission to post this article with backlinks to your site on
    http://ourangelbaby.org/articles

    Dana Konski
    Co Founder – President
    Angel Baby Inc.
    http://www.ourangelbaby.org/
    http://www.facebook.com/pages/Angel-Baby/114146991942347?ref=nf

    It is the mission of our online volunteer angel parent support organisation to provide a compassionate baby and child loss community by thriving to bring about positive change in our society and in the way it supports angel families; always striving to reach out to new families to bring comfort in knowing they are not alone.

  5. Katherine Minevitz said on February 17, 2012 at 9:32 am ... #

    Such great advice…I have been lost at how to reach out to coworker who lost her husband and another one with terminally ill husband…I love your approach…thanks!

  6. Janet Macy said on February 17, 2012 at 6:42 pm ... #

    Great article. I understand the co-worker issues. I had to deal with it after the death of my son.

    I ate by myself in my office (with the door closed) for a few months. I couldn’t bear to walk into the cafeteria and have everyone look at me with that “pity” look. I hate that look of pity. I didn’t want pity. I wanted to carry on a conversation and be included in the group as usual.

    It’s so nice when a co-worker remember’s your loved one’s BD or death day the next year. Just when you know one knows why you are so ‘down’ that day. I’ve started doing that with some of my co-workers that I’m close to. It is so rewarding to have a friend or acquaintance say, with a big smile and tears in their eyes, “how did you know”.

    I know! I put their loved ones death day and BD on my Outlook Calendar as a recurring event. Those days are tough on everyone. I know.

  7. Kay said on February 19, 2012 at 7:59 pm ... #

    My husband died of neck cancer in forty one days. I work in a family owned rest home for the last fourteen years. The RN said to me Life sucks than you died. I was called into the owner’s office because ” your co worker think you are too stand offish. Remember my husband died, not my problem Needless to said I am looking for a new job

  8. Sherri said on June 20, 2012 at 7:55 pm ... #

    My husband died last year. After taking six days off, and still numb, I returned to work. Two weeks later I asked my supervisor for one day off to fit in appts with my estate atty, bankruptcy atty, and 6 year old’s grief counselor. She said, “I think everyone has been patient enough with you. The office is understaffed right now. I don’t recommend you take any more time off.” The interesting part is that no one in my office was taking time off work at that time; we were not understaffed. SHE was feeling unsupported because I had missed some days for bereavement, and she had (nor has now) any capacity for empathy. The last year has been a long, steady spiral downward, and I’ve reached my goal of waiting a year to see if things here could improve. Things have not improved and so now its time for me to seek other opportunities.

    It is my strong opinion that managers should receive some guidance or training when dealing with a grieving employee.

  9. Paulette said on February 4, 2013 at 12:31 pm ... #

    A co-worker that I lunch and coffee with at work is going through a very difficult time. Her adult son died unexpectedly leaving behind four small children. She is back at work on a part time basis but has not been for lunch, nor to the cafeteria for coffee, etc. She is working behind a closed office door.

    Based on your suggestions above, I am going to send her a note to let her know I am thinking of her and that I am there for her should she need a shoulder to cry on.

  10. Jim said on June 6, 2013 at 12:27 am ... #

    A coworker of mine found out that her exboyfriend died of cancer today. She was working with me when she recieved a text message informing her of his death. She chatted like usual and her and I have a humurous and friendly relationship but are not close as of yet. Later on she said that she wished she had went to visit him. She regrets not at least making an attempt to let him know she cared. I think she is experiencing shock and tomorrow will be harder for her as the reality of it sinks in. So I want to somehow let her know that I am there for her as I do care about her. She isnt an emotional person so ill have to be somewhat subtle. Ill go see if I can find an appropriate card for her and maybe
    buy her lunch, other than that I will simply offer to help her at work with her duties and listen to her if she needs to talk. Having suffered loss myself I know what not to say to a grieving person. And I will not tolerate the type of treatment that Kay and Sherri recieved from they’re coworkers and supervisors. I am terribly sorry for you too and my heart rends for both of you. It is inhuman that you were treated like that. I will voice opposition if any of that nonsence occurs and they can write me up if they have a problem with it. I will be there when my coworkers suffer!

  11. Angela Hagood said on July 22, 2013 at 10:42 am ... #

    Thank you for posting this article. I am meeting with a new boss tomorrow that recently lost a son to a tragic accident. When we set up the appointment I asked how his prior week off had been and that’s when he told me the news. He said, “I feel like hell today.” I hate when people think that after the funeral that things should be back to normal. I wanted to show compassion when I meet him tomorrow morning. He has a very stressful position at this business and I want him to know that I have an ear and a shoulder not advice and clichés. Thanks to everyone else that posted a comment.

  12. Sherry R said on July 23, 2013 at 5:17 pm ... #

    Great article which offers a lot of basic human support advice.
    The spirit of your loved one stays with you forever. The grief and loss does too, you just learn to live with it and it becomes bearable.

  13. Ursula McClure, MDiv Candidate said on October 24, 2013 at 9:25 pm ... #

    This was brilliant. I am a minister and I found myself at a loss of words to acknowledge a co-worker’s loss (I’ve been temping here for about 5 months).
    I’m usually in a religious setting when having to be “on”. This article was really practical for acquaintance-like relationships in the workplace.

    I appreciate the insight and decided to write a short note to ack. and a listening ear if my co-worker wanted to talk.

    Thank you.

  14. Ryan said on January 5, 2014 at 1:24 pm ... #

    Thank you for the great and thoughtful advice.

  15. Meg said on March 4, 2014 at 8:22 pm ... #

    This article hit the spot, as did the comments by so many readers. It’s so important to just acknowledge the pain that people bring with them wherever they go. Every one of us is carrying our stories of happiness, loss, grief, heartbreak, all the time. We could all stand to be a little more compassionate and a little gentler, every day.

  16. mary said on March 16, 2014 at 6:32 pm ... #

    I never really understood how devastating the loss of a loved one is until recently when my husband of 50 years died suddenly. Yes, I sent out those sympathy cards but I did not realize how comforting the words are until recently. It’s a whole other world when you are the receiver. The statement “I know how you feel” doesn’t cut it unless the one making the comment really has had it happen to them. Then it really is comforting because they have been through it and they can say the right thing. Bless them.

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