Helping a Co-Worker Who is Grieving

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Helping a co-worker who is grieving is challenging during normal times. But in a pandemic, it can be tough to figure out what to do so say. Read through some suggestions on how to best support co-workers managing grief now and in the future.

Helping a Co-Worker Who is Grieving

I am currently grieving the loss of my mom, this week, to the COVID virus. I have spent the last week or so in a mental fog that kept me from stringing two sentences together, but I was prepared for that. What I was not prepared for was the loss of motivation. Today, some of that motivation has returned and I felt compelled to write this.

The author Joseph with his mom Terry, Christmas 1998.
Me and my mom, Christmas 1998, Willard, Ohio.

Typically, my blog posts have been about professional development or the need to focus on diversity in the workplace. I’ve written about staying relevant and leaning into vulnerability. And while these topics will always be important, right now, I am unsure how relevant they are to my own near future.

I began writing my blog a couple of years ago to deal with the shock of losing a job and processing how I felt about that sudden loss. So these feelings I am experiencing now aren’t new. They are just incredibly heightened.

In one of the chapters of my book, Tales of a Displaced Worker, I wrote about the similarities that job-loss grief has to other types of grief. Intellectually, I was aware of how this would feel.

But, of course, nothing really prepares you for the death of a parent, expected or otherwise. I am grateful that most of my friends and family have said the kindest things to me and have extended their hearts to include me and my family.

There Has to be a But Somewhere in this Story

But, that hasn’t been the case with every interaction.

Before my mom died, she lived with COPD for years. Most recently, she has caught a mild case of pneumonia and was recovering in a convalescent hospital near her home in Ohio. The hospital is where she ended up contracting the virus that killed her.

So the story about my mom’s death is complicated. When I tell the story, I expect people to just accept the facts as shared and respond sympathetically. That has not always been the case. Sometimes, people have felt the need to talk about how her death was hastened by her COPD. Or that as a smoker for years before, her death was likely.

I can say without a doubt, the truth hurts even if it’s true. And two days after she died probably perhaps isn’t the day to bring up this type of truth.

When I Said the Wrong Thing

Hearing people say the wrong thing sparked a memory. It reminded me of a story from a decade ago when I saw a co-worker who had been several months pregnant the last I saw her but, months later, had returned to the body size I recalled her in months previously. I asked her how the baby was doing when she shared that it was a still-birth and the baby hadn’t survived. At the moment, I felt tongue-tied and probably said something along the lines of “oh, I’m sorry, I hadn’t heard” and then lost all sense of what to say next. The exchange ended awkwardly before I excused myself to return to my tasks.

So, I understand that hearing about another person’s grief can be overwhelming. And you don’t always know what to say. Or you think you know, but your head is telling you otherwise. And perhaps you do say something but it was wrong.

With over 228,000 people dead from the COVID virus, and many living with on-going complications from the virus, there may be people who are dealing with a COVID-related death in your office or organization both near and far. Or they are related to someone who died but were unable to attend any wake or funerals due to pandemic responses. You may not know someone, yet, but until the pandemic ends, it’s likely that you will. And I hope that the tips I share below give ou advice on how to help your friends and coworkers deal with their grief.

Tips to Help You Talk to Grieving Co-Workers

Sabina Nawaz, in How to Offer Support to a Grieving Colleague, says that there are “two ways you can support a grieving colleague: doing or being. Mourners need both.”

She continues, “We’re well-trained in doing through our work. We’re primed to leave every meeting with a set of action items. Activities like making a meal or picking up the kids from karate can make us feel valuable, demonstrably useful. Doing is familiar, easy, and comfortable.

“But being can be uncomfortable, especially when you’re trying to support a coworker through loss. What does it look like to simply be with a colleague who is grieving? It looks like empathy.”

So, while we’re accustomed to asking to do things, the better thing is to just listen. Be comfortable with the vulnerability. And remain in the moment, despite your discomfort. Below are some of the author’s suggestions:

Don’t ask

The questions you ask a grieving colleague can be targeted at specific action. Don’t ask how they’re doing, how you can help, or what happened. Keep it short and simple.

Don’t compare

We’re all different in how we mourn. And the grieving process for each person is different depending on whom we mourn. Instead of going into a long description about what was helpful for you when you lost a loved one, briefly let your colleague know whether you’ve also lost someone, and say, “I can’t imagine what this is like for you.” Your colleague might ask you how it was for you, or might just take comfort in knowing they’re not alone.

Don’t rush it

Just because you’re seeing your coworker for the first time since their loss, don’t feel compelled to blurt out your condolences right before the start of a business meeting. Make eye contact and notice they’re there. Afterward, send them an email letting them know you’re thinking of them or welcoming them back.

Don’t track their progress 

While we know that the acuteness of grief will dull over time, many people in the throes of grieving aren’t ready to hear that, or to think about letting go of the grieving process. 

Don’t think of this as a one-and-done

Grieving will take many forms over time. Some days I want to be by myself and shut out the world. Other days I’d love time with a friend or I crave a hug. And still others I’d simply appreciate having help to sort through my brother’s paperwork. Let your colleague know that you’re around.

Don’t ignore them

After reading all these don’ts, you might be nervous to do anything. But don’t let your level of discomfort lead you to say nothing. Ultimately, your support and intentions will come through. Simply focus on your colleague and take your cue from them.

How Managers Can Help Grieving Co-Workers

For those supervising staff experiencing death or in the middle of grieving the loss of a loved one, it is especially important to understand that grief isn’t a linear process. Instead, it can happen in stages that ebb and flow, back and forth. Authors Gianpiero Petriglieri and Sally Maitlis, in When a Colleague Is Grieving, address ways that a manager can support a colleague or team member once they return to the work.

Be present

In the immediate aftermath of the death of a loved one, or at any point in which grief flares up acutely, acknowledging the loss without making demands is the best a manager can do. Let the griever take the lead. It is important at this stage to ignore the impulse to “fix” that drives most managerial actions. Death is unfixable. Instead, managers should be present and support employees by managing the boundary between them and the workplace. 

Be patient

It is easy, in the midst of such oscillations, to feel that we’ve “lost it.” We want to return to normal, to be who we were before, but we feel that it might not be possible. It is important for managers to realize that grief destabilizes focus, consistency, and drive—the very things we describe as “talent” at work. Inconsistency is normal for some time after a loss, as is a lack of appetite for challenges and change. Neither is a sign that an employee has lost talent or interest in work. Recognizing and managing these behaviors can avert a good deal of misunderstanding and conflict.

Be open

There is no timeline for the emergence of hope and resolve after loss, but when signs of them appear, managers can nurture them through affirmation and a gentle interest in what employees might be discovering about their attitudes to life and work. This is especially true in the early stages of this phase, when the person might feel some guilt about these new ways of feeling and seeing life. The most helpful managers are not those who captivate employees with a hopeful vision of the future. They are those who listen and support them as they craft a new way forward, carving out space for meaning making in the present.

What Do You Say When You Have No Words to a Grieving Co-Worker?

Having faced this situation as I described above, I know that not everyone has the capacity, in the wake of hearing about death and pain to say something comforting. And I know, now, that isn’t okay. I know I wasn’t expecting well-crafted elegies or something terribly personal from friends I hadn’t heard or seen from in years. Even old co-workers may struggle with what to say. Amy Morin, in 3 Things to Say to a Grieving Co-Worker When You’re at a Loss for Words, reminds us that it’s a natural response. Within an office, let the manager or close office friend take the lead to become a single point of contact. Also, the timing of the messages is critical to remember. End-of-the-day messages may be easier to process than one’s shared mi-day. Or worse, in the middle of a work meeting or during a shared colleague lunch.

Morin shares three things you can say when you’re at a loss for words:

1. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Sometimes, a simple acknowledgment is best. A heartfelt “I’m sorry” can mean a lot to someone who is heartbroken.

Resist getting into a lengthy explanation or talking about your own experiences with grief. Remember that when it comes to offering words of comfort, sometimes less is more.

2. “I’m thinking of you.”

This can be especially helpful when someone is continuing to go through a tough time–like a close family member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. If you believe in the power of prayer, it’s a great time to say, “I’m praying for you,” as well.

3. “How can I help?”

Quite often, people say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do.” But they never check back in with the person to see what could be done.

Sometimes, it’s best to ask, “What can I do for you?” to make it clear that you are standing by to do whatever you can. Just don’t be surprised if a grieving person doesn’t know what he needs.

Be Flexible in the Ambiguity

So many of the examples provided above work in typical work environments where people are working in proximity, but there may be experiences that can’t be accounted for because people are being forced to grieve alone or at least away from other family members.

Without the typical rituals, like a funeral or shiva, or similar cultural experience, the death of a loved one feels during a pandemic can have a lack of closure. Pauline Boss describes this experience as an “ambiguous loss.”

My own suggestion is to be flexible in the ambiguity. Take your cues from the person who is grieving. If a manager, make decisions that support the team member. And if a colleague, offer sympathy and direct support.

As a person now working on my own, I miss the comfort of the routine my old work life used to provide. But I know that, right now, the grieving will continue until I am able to share this loss with family and friends, in person. I can only hope that these lessons I’ve learned and shared will help others give comfort to those they know who have lost someone in the pandemic. And I hope that they do not have to add another person who has lost someone to the pandemic before this all ends.

In closing, I hope you remind your friends, family, and colleagues to protect themselves from this virus. Be safe and please take care of yourself.

About Post Author

Joseph Rios, EdD

I am Joseph Rios and I believe that leadership is an expression of our values
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