You get the news Wednesday morning. A colleague has just experienced a death in her family. What should you do or say? What is the correct etiquette in the workplace, and what can you do to ease the pain and transition for your fellow worker?
You might send a card or say something to express sympathy. Try to avoid platitudes. It will be better received if you sincerely express your concern or, better yet, if you share a memory about the person. That is more meaningful than an easily dropped cliche. Remember to look at the person that you are talking to, rather than at your hands or away. It is her child or spouse that died, not her. Survivors often feel as though they are invisible to others.
Be aware of your tone. In later conversations, you do not have to be continually solemn. Some humor, particularly in difficult times, is welcome. However, telling jokes, laughing raucously, and being excessively chipper are grating on the nerves.
Talking about the grief
It is common for people to feel uncomfortable in this situation and therefore tempted to avoid any awkwardness. This can mean that the lost one is never mentioned, when all the survivor wants is to talk about that person. It is helpful to let people talk. This is not to say that you suddenly become a grief counselor or that work ceases. For many people, continuing to work helps them get through the most trying times.
Try not to bow to the temptation to switch the subject quickly when the survivor talks about how badly she feels. No matter how uncomfortable you may be with pain or sadness, it is not nearly as difficult as it is for the person going through the loss. She will feel sorrow and likely have extreme emotional swings for a number of months as she goes through the grief cycle. Although there are often situations in life from which you learn great lessons, avoid asking the survivor what lessons they are learning from this, what messages the universe is giving them, or what positive things they are getting from going through the grieving process.
Nothing you can say will eliminate the other person’s grief. All you can do is help soften it for a little while. Whether the loved one was ill for a long time or died unexpectedly, there is no ideal way for anyone to prepare for this event. In the case of a sudden death, a well-meaning comment such as, “Well at least he didn’t suffer like my mother who had cancer,” can trivialize the death. Just tell your co-worker that you are sorry.
Touching base later
Immediately after a death, the survivor receives a great deal of attention and support. But after a time, maybe a couple of weeks or months, other people move on with their lives. One of the worst things that colleagues do is seem to forget that the person has experienced such a significant loss. It is really important to be supportive for a number of months after a death. The loss is still fresh for the survivor. Continue to take the person to lunch, ask how they are doing, and offer support. This is also a good time to share a memory or to write a note. Notes and kind words even months later are still highly appreciated. Saying something about the lost one is painful to hear, but going through the pain is part of the process.
Don’t be surprised at changes in behavior and sometimes in work performance. The culture in the United States does not support mourning as do some other cultures. People are expected to take three days off for bereavement and then come back to work and perform at maximum potential right away. But grief comes and goes in waves. There are better days and worse days for the person. This is the time to be understanding and lenient. If you supervise this person, ask her what she needs. Is it a lighter schedule for a while? Or a heavier one so she can distract herself? Will she need some flexibility for time off for the bad days, or maybe go home early occasionally? Be understanding and allow the person room to breathe. If performance suffers too much, a referral to an employee assistance program may be warranted.
Ultimately, only time will make the difference. Meanwhile, supportive, understanding colleagues and managers will help the process.
Hunter, Chad, “How to Help a Grieving Coworker,” ehow.com