How to support a coworker through personal loss
Spending 40 hours plus a week with your colleagues can make for great times with “work friends”. Though what happens when times get tough for someone you are “work friends” with, how can you respond? Death is an uncomfortable thought, and it can be hard to manage in a professional context.
So first, be empathetic and acknowledge that everyone grieves differently. Let this guide your words and actions with your colleague. Here are some specific do’s and don’t’s of supporting your co-worker through loss:
Perhaps the most surefire way to be supportive is to offer flexibility to your grieving colleague. It’s evidently difficult to manage, especially in the case of accidental or surprise loss. If you’re the boss or in management, the way you handle these situations may vary between each individual, depending on how your business functions and how you treat the culture of the team. Some ways to show support from a business level are:
distribute their workload
reassess their to-do list
ensure there is time to work around any time away
Your intention is to create a comfortable environment for your colleague as they go through this difficult time. The tone you set as a boss during this time will shape the team’s attitude to support, so it’s important if you are wearing the boss hat to manage the circumstances in a way that is supportive and encouraging.
Offer your condolences in private.
Your work friend may have mustered a lot of effort to remain calm and focussed on their first day back, so saying sensitive things may trigger them or break their cool. It is best to avoid offering condolences in a setting where they have to set their feelings aside and be in business mode, like in a meeting. Instead, consider writing a condolence message via e-mail, or exchanging some brief, kind words with them during lunch. If you want to be more personal, you can send a card with personal notes from the office, or contributing to a charity they specify on behalf of your team.
While you may be concerned about your colleague’s wellbeing, it is best to avoid asking what happened or how they’re keeping up. Sabina Nawaz, a global CEO coach, explains “asking forces your coworker to do something; they have to decide whether and what to share, which they might not be capable of at that time.” Simply let them know that you’re thinking of them and you’re there to help them when they need it. Your colleague might reluctant in asking for help or not know where to start, so be specific in what you’re willing to help them with.
“People seldom refuse help, if one offers it in the right way.”
Do not to compare your own experiences with theirs.
If you have experienced loss before, you might be ready to share your own stories and experiences. However, this might open doors to things they don’t want to hear. Instead, if you have coped with loss before, just let them know that. This may give them comfort knowing someone nearby has experienced what they have and gives them the choice to speak to someone who understands what they’re going through.
Don’t assume they’re doing better as time passes.
Just because they’re back at work, it is not safe to assume they are doing better or are open to talking about it. Instead of asking how they’re going or saying “I’m glad you’re doing better”, simply thank them for being there.
Don’t forget that this healing process may take weeks, months or even years. Offering support should not be on a one off basis. During the early stages, you can set up times to check in on their transition back into work. You can check in with them from time to time, every few weeks, more casually. It can be as simple as messaging them, “let me know if you need anything” or “here to support you if you need it”.
You can also jot down the anniversary of the death, and honor that day through a message to show you haven’t forgotten.
Don’t be afraid to say something.
Death may be daunting to discuss, especially with a colleague. It might even leave you so uncomfortable that you avoid the subject, or the person entirely.
Rather than ignoring your colleague, being considerate and supportive in your colleague’s time of need will be something they appreciate. It is much better to say something wrong, than leaving your colleague feeling alone at work. If you’re unsure of how best to support your colleague, let them set the tone of the conversation and follow their lead.
While you may concerned of the lines between professional and personal, the most important thing to do is be compassionate. At the end of the day all you can do is be there to support them when they’re ready and create the most comfortable environment possible as they go through this difficult time.