Here are six practical tips on being there for someone who’s been bereaved in your workplace.
“Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why – they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say?” – Sheryl Sandberg, author and chief operating officer at Facebook, on returning to work after the death of her husband
At work, we’re used to leaving our personal lives at the door, with questions often not straying beyond a casual “How was your weekend?”
So how do you make the transition from small talk to talking to someone about their bereavement? We’ve got some tips for navigating this difficult topic in the workplace.
Don’t be afraid to say something
“People are so afraid of saying the wrong thing to the mourner, they err on the side of not acknowledging it in the least, and that is a greater problem.” – Claire Bidwell Smith, author and grief therapist
Even if you don’t know what to say, it’s important not to avoid that person – they’re likely to feel a bit awkward and isolated, coming back into work. No one would expect you to have all the answers, but you acknowledging what’s happened could help them feel supported.
Don’t worry about getting it wrong. There’s no right or wrong or set way to talk about these things, but if you’re unsure what you should do or say, you can go for a simple acknowledgement like ‘I’m sorry for your loss’.
You don’t have to ask big questions
“The best way to phrase it, for me, is ‘how are you feeling today?’ because ‘how are you?’ is such a big question, and overall you can feel quite rubbish, but sometimes today is better than yesterday.” – Ella, whose friend died suddenly in 2019. Watch more from Ella and other people’s experiences with grief.
Checking in with someone who’s grieving doesn’t need to be a momentous event, and it’s likely that they won’t want to have an in-depth conversation about how they’re feeling at work.
A short “I’m thinking of you”, or “how’s your day going?” can be enough. You can always give them the option to open up more about it if they want to.
Talking about your own experiences can be helpful, but try to avoid saying you ‘know how they feel’ as everyone deals with grief differently. Instead, you could point them towards activities or resources that helped you, and might help them too.
Find out how they’d prefer you to respond
Some people might not want to talk about their bereavement much at all, and instead find some escape from their feelings in the workplace. Or they may just want it to be acknowledged, and then choose whether they want to bring it up again.
They might like the reassurance that they can take time out if they’re feeling emotional. If you’re going to be working together, you could ask them, or their line manager, what they’d prefer from you.
Little gestures can mean a lot
When someone returns to work after a bereavement, they might feel quite isolated from their colleagues. They could feel like they don’t want to bring people down, or that people will feel awkward around them.
Asking them if they want a tea or coffee or leaving one on their desk with a biscuit may seem like a very small action, but it might help them feel like you care about how they’re feeling, and that they’re being acknowledged rather than avoided.
Pick your moments with care
Offering condolences in the workplace can feel so awkward. Should you say something when you see them making lunch, or as you pass them in the corridor?
Make sure you choose a private place to have this conversation, as it is very personal, and they may feel observed in busier areas. You don’t necessarily have to have this conversation in person, if the right moment doesn’t arise. You could always send them an email or leave a note on their desk instead.
Ask them for lunch, or include them in other ways
“I think it’s really important, when your colleague has lost somebody, not to pretend that it hasn’t happened. I’d been off for some time and every single person gave me the biggest hug when I came in and that was just absolutely lovely.” – Amanda, whose father and uncle died within a few weeks of each other. Read Amanda’s story.
If you work with them regularly, you could ask them if they’d like to get lunch together. This could give them some space to share how they’re feeling with you, or just have some time to relax.
And if you’re going out after work, make sure to invite them. They may not feel like being in a social situation, but the offer might be appreciated nonetheless.
If you, or someone you know, has been affected by terminal illness, we’re here to listen. Contact the Marie Curie Support Line at 0800 090 2309 or speak to us online.
Read more about how to support someone who’s grieving.
About the Author:
Marie Curie is the UK’s leading charity for people affected by terminal illness. We believe that everyone deserves the best quality of care and support at the end of their lives. Marie Curie Nurses care for people across the UK in the comfort of their homes, and our nine hospices offer round-the-clock specialist care and support. Our Support Line and website offer practical information and emotional support for anyone affected by terminal illness or coping with bereavement.