Supporting an employee as they cope with a traumatic loss

4 min read

In the aftermath of loss, an employee returns to the office with an emotional burden that can be hard to carry. But when their loved one dies unexpectedly or in a shocking way, that burden is even heavier.

Grief after losing someone to things like suicide, violence, or a deadly accident can feel like a roller coaster, full of intense ups and downs. It is helpful to understand what they are going through—because an unexpected or violent death can affect people in a wide variety of ways.

Some are calm and serene in the moment, others are instantly thrown into despair or rage. In addition, some may reach out for a hug, while others may recoil from any comfort and may need physical space to take in the reality of what has happened.

There is no need to say anything profound; simply sitting with the employee in this moment of horror is profoundly humane act.

And beyond the initial conversation, there are a few more things managers can do to minimize stress on the employee and offer a sense of belonging and support.

When sharing the news with other employees

Before any information is shared with colleagues, it is important for the manager to confirm how much detail the employee wants to share.

It may seem intrusive to have this discussion when an employee has been stunned by tragic news, but it will actually spare them painful questions later.

Be prepared that other employees may try to make sense of the unfathomable by going over the details again and again.

Be prepared that other employees may try to make sense of the unfathomable by going over the details again and again. Try to minimize this tendency by asking employees to keep their curiosity in check and be sensitive of their colleagues' privacy.

Managers should make sure that the bereaved employee knows they are under no obligation to share every small detail, especially if they do not want to rehash them again and again with well-meaning but inadvertently hurtful co-workers.

Whatever details are agreed upon, remember that the goal is to create strong, healthy boundaries for the employee during bereavement leave and after their return to the workplace. They're there for everyone to see, in black in white.

In cases of suicides, it is important for managers to know that handling that information responsibly is crucial, since news of a loved one’s suicide sometimes brings up suicidal thoughts in others. It is always a good idea to include information about the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and share their number (1-800-273-8255) in your email to staff.

Understanding PTSD

An unexpected death brings up especially strong emotions because it catches us off guard, and a death by tragic means magnifies those feelings. For these reasons, an employee whose loved one has died this may experience post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

According to a 2014 study published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, “unexpected death was associated consistently with elevated odds of new onsets of PTSD, panic disorder, and depressive episodes at all stages of the life course.”

Symptoms of PTSD include heart palpitations; sweating; hyperventilating; problems sleeping; feeling angry, tense, or jumpy; and dwelling on what the person might have gone through in their final moments.

Granted, there is quite a bit of overlap between these symptoms and the different ways that grief can be expressed. But PTSD may be a factor when the symptoms dramatically affect an employee’s day-to-day life and do not ease up with time. In this case, an employee will likely benefit from professional help.

Since managers and other coworkers spend hours together each day, work colleagues are often the the first to see the signs of PTSD in a bereaved employee.

By letting them know that mental health resources that are available to them—whether offering them in-house mental health resources, or seeking out trusted providers to suggest—a manager can play a crucial role in help them find their footing during what is typically a bewildering and frightening time.