Communicating with a grieving employee

3 min read

What to say to an employee who has had a death in the family

  • An employee’s manager may be the first person they tell after receiving news that a loved one has died.

  • A manager can ease the burden on an employee who is vulnerable and in pain simply by expressing support and care, and focusing on immediate needs.

  • Establish a single point of contact with the employee—either their manager or a work friend they choose—to give them time and space.

  • Communicate the situation to the rest of the staff, and stress that the grieving employee is not to be disturbed. All communication should go through one point person.

When one of your employees suffers a loss, you may be one of the first people with whom they share the tragic news. As their manager, you are in a tenuous situation. While you are not a close friend or family member, you will be there for them in a moment of vulnerability, pain, and possibly panic.

For an employee, letting a boss or manager know that you’ve just lost a loved one is not always easy. Here are some things you can do to ease that burden as much as possible for your employee. 

What to do immediately for a bereaved employee

When you receive the news, take a moment to give this situation your full attention. Put any current tasks on hold and taking a deep breath to re-center yourself. 

It can be hard to come up with some immediate words to express your condolences, especially if you have been caught off guard by the heavy news. If you find yourself at a loss for words, these are a few ways to express support and care:

  • What can I do to help right now?

  • Whatever you will be going through, I am here to support you.

  • I want to emphasize that the team is here for you during this extremely difficult time.  

I’m sorry for your loss” may be the default phrase you reach for, but it can come off as detached and insincere, and it also does not show that you are there to support your employee.

Similarly, your instinct may be to tell them to go home and not think about work, but for someone who is in the chaotic emotional throes of grief, it can actually be really helpful to have a structured plan for transitioning in and out of bereavement leave. 

When someone’s life has been turned upside-down by the loss of a loved one, it can be comforting to know that you are putting together a plan for them. In this spirit, try to be as straightforward and detailed as possible.

Let them know that you will be in touch soon via email with information about bereavement leave. This is also the time to offer them a choice of whether they would like to elect someone else in the office—if there is someone they are closer to—as the main point of contact going forward, or if they would prefer to communicate directly with you. 

Bereavement leave and beyond

Once the bereaved employee is on their leave, don’t email them unless you have some absolutely necessary information to share, or unless they have reached out to you with a question or concern, for the first few days at least.

Be aware of important dates like the funeral, when you should absolutely not contact them. 

Offer them a choice of whether they would like to use someone else in the office—such as a close friend—as their main point of contact.

When the bereavement leave is coming to a close and it’s time to get back in touch, ease into a gentle correspondence, letting them know that you are available and willing to be as flexible as company policy allows to accommodate whatever needs they may have.

Welcome them back with appreciation and attentiveness, and follow their cues if it seems like they would rather not talk about their loss. Simply letting them know that you are aware that grief is an ongoing process, and that you will continue to be there for them if they need anything, will be greatly appreciated.