< Bereavement at work

Supporting a bereaved employee at work

If someone you know at work is coping with the death of a loved one, it can be difficult to know what to say or how to support them. However, your support could be a vital way to help them through the coming weeks and months.

Although there is nothing you can do to take away their pain or ‘cure’ their grief, your empathy may make it just that little bit easier to get through the day at work.

Broaching grief in the workplace can be particularly difficult, especially if the nature of the relationships are predominantly professional, says grief counsellor Annie Broadbent.

Dear Annie: Does grief have boundaries at work?

But a bereavement can soften the boundaries around workplace relationships: “They are likely to care a lot less about the rules of appropriateness and will be more in touch with their need for real genuine connection,” says Annie.

“Don’t be afraid to offer that to them. Try and forget formality, and be real with them.”

How to support a grieving colleague at work

It’s helpful to be aware of how people grieve and that every experience is different.

Even if you have been bereaved in the past, it’s inappropriate to say: “I know how you feel,” but to ask them how they are – and to listen.

  • Grief is unpredictable
    A bereaved colleague might be quieter than usual, seem distracted or be less organised or motivated than usual.
  • Their grief is unique to them
    Everyone has a different experience of bereavement. There is no ‘normal’ way to grieve.
  • Be patient
    Some people need distraction and work, but if they are struggling to cope, may need some support with their tasks.
  • Grief doesn’t have a timescale
    There is no set time limit on mourning a loved one. Many people will grieve for the rest of their lives, although their grief will change and become more manageable. Don’t anticipate that a colleague will ‘get over it’ within a certain amount of time.
  • You can’t fix it
    You cannot fix someone’s grief or take it away. It is best to accept this. Actively trying to cheer them up or suggesting reasons why they shouldn’t feel so sad may not be helpful, even though it comes from your concern for them. Instead let them express how they are feeling and try to listen without judging.

Ways to help

  • Say something
    You might be worried about saying the wrong thing, but often saying something is better than ignoring them. Remember that the awkwardness you are feeling is nothing compared to their pain. Just a simple “I’m so sorry” will be better than staying silent. Ignoring them will make them feel isolated and alone.
  • Say their loved one’s name
    Don’t be afraid to talk about the person who has died if it comes up in conversation. Avoiding the issue will make them feel as though they are not allowed to talk about their loved one. There’s nothing wrong with acknowledging the person who has died.
  • Offer practical support
    Rather than saying, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know”, find a way to help and do it.
  • Don’t get offended if they reject your support
    If a colleague says they do not need your help, do not take this personally. They may have a lot of people helping them, or they may want to deal with it on their own. Respect their decision but be there for them if they change their mind.
  • Don’t be embarrassed if they cry
    Be ready with a tissue.
  • Listen
    Having someone to talk to can be really important when coping with grief. If someone opens up to you about how they are feeling, just listen. Be aware that they might not be asking for advice, so don’t rush to give your opinion. Some people process their grief by telling their story over and over again. This can help with their healing, so be patient.
  • Be aware that their grief won’t simply vanish
    A bereaved person often has lots of support in the first days and weeks of their loss. It can take far longer than an initial easing-in period for them to adjust to being back at work, in their grief. Work can be one of the first places where people feel their grief has been forgotten. They may prefer the distraction that their routine gives them, but it doesn’t hurt for colleagues to ask how they are feeling.