How to talk to your bereaved coworker
When someone on your team is dealing with the passing of a loved one—especially those coworkers you’ve worked most closely with—you may be eager to support them as much as you can as they return to work. The question is: How?
Many people feel awkward and uncomfortable when it comes to grief and mourning. It’s normal and, truthfully, not the fault of any individual. Our society typically shies away from the topic, filling the space with platitudes or outright avoidance.
Unfortunately, this might be exactly what is putting a strain on your workplace relationship during this extremely difficult time for your colleague. As they get back into the groove of the job, it’s important for you and your team to remember that grief is individual and unique to each person; the best way to find out what your coworker needs is, simply, to ask and listen with compassion.
Helping them adjust
Ideally, your team member would be able to take all the time they need to grieve and mourn. This is unfortunately not always the case, for any number of reasons. Your colleague is most likely not going to be operating at 100% when they return, even if they do get to make the call about when they’re ready to come back to work.
You might notice that they seem scattered, distant, or even visibly emotional at times. It’s also possible that they will exhibit a shorter temper or less tolerance of the everyday annoyances that can happen at an office.
Think of grief like a rollercoaster: Your coworker is on a complex ride. They may feel focused and driven one moment and then lost in their mourning the next.
Finding the right words
For those of us who aren’t currently experiencing grief, the biggest struggle is: What should we say to those who are? The question isn’t an easy one. We want to support our friends, ease their pain, and give them space to mourn the way they need. This is a lot of responsibility to fall on one quick, public interaction.
Think of grief like a rollercoaster: Your coworker is on a complex ride.
When you understand that grief has stages that ebb and flow, you’ll be able to meet your colleague where they are.
Welcoming them back
The hardest moments for a grieving person can be as they return to their everyday routine, including their job. They might feel guilty to be “moving on” or pressured to “appear normal.” It is typical for people to seem hyper-focused on “getting back to business” when they return to work. This might be what some people need, but it’s also potentially a way of masking how they really feel.
Your colleague's emotions are vast and consuming at times, so platitudes often fall flat.
In the first few days a person is back on the job, you can offer your condolences, but do not dwell on their grief. The important thing to remember is not to minimize their pain; phrases like “everything happens for a reason” or “glad you’re moving on” can make a grieving person feel pushed to the side. Their emotions are vast and consuming at times, so platitudes often fall flat.
If you feel the need to say more than just simple condolences, let them know that you are there for them if they need to talk or want to grab a coffee—and then do so if and when they come to you for support.
Giving them room
Whether it’s a private moment or a more public one (like a meeting), you’re going to want to provide your colleague with the space they need when they are openly displaying grief. Doing so can mean a lot of different things, depending on the moment.
During a one-on-one interaction, recognize that you’re both in a moment of vulnerability. Listen to the person’s experience and validate their emotions. Ask what you can do to support them during their transition, and then work to do those things to the best of your ability.
If you notice your coworker struggling in a more public forum, like during a presentation or meeting, kindly excuse them if it’s possible. It’s important to be compassionate during these moments, but time to process their emotions away from questioning eyes will be a huge benefit to them.
Balancing the team’s needs
You want to support your colleague, but doing so cannot come at the expense of everyone else’s well-being. This is a delicate situation and the best way to handle it is to help them find ways to grieve comfortably.
If you have a trusting relationship with your colleague, speak openly and empathetically with them while you take a walk around the office neighborhood. Listen to the ways they’re experiencing the workplace during these emotional times, and explore ways you can help them step away when needed. You can suggest they speak to their manager about moving them away from certain responsibilities temporarily, which they might feel guilty about doing.
The grief of others is very tricky to navigate, because what is exposed on the outside is not always how someone is feeling on the inside. With that in mind, approach your interaction with someone who has just experienced the death of a loved one with patience and openness. Their journey on the path of mourning will continue, and you will be able to support them along the way ●
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