Helping a Grieving Co-Worker

Grief and loss visit the workplace frequently based on the fact that 2.5 million deaths occur every year in the United States.  These deaths will inevitably affect those with whom we work side-by-side each day.
Here’s an example of how such a situation: Todd had worked with Judy for the last 18 years. They had become friends as well as colleagues. While they didn’t socialize outside of work very often, they had lunch together several times a week and over the years shared many stories and pictures of their families. Judy had shared the fact that her husband Ben had cancer, and that he had started to receive hospice care. When he learned of Ben’s death, Todd felt sadness himself since he was so familiar with the stories of their marriage and family life.  Even though he had known Judy for a long time, he also was surprised that he felt unsure about how to support Judy now.
How can you be helpful to your co-worker if you find yourself in this situation?
  1. Speak simple and genuine words: “I am so sorry for your loss. Please think about how all of us at work can be helpful.”
  2. Offer practical responses:  “Can I pick up anyone at the airport who is coming for the funeral?” “I’ll bring a carry-out dinner for you and your family. Is that okay? What night is best?”
  3. Coordinate with your company’s Human Resources (HR) or Employee Assistance Program (EAP) Department to learn what resources are available for grieving co-workers. For instance, some companies allow colleagues to donate their leave time for bereavement.
  4. Find out if there is a designated memorial, such as contributing to a charity and let others at work know.
  5. Recognize that every griever is unique but there are some common patterns of grieving which you can read about on the internet or at a library.
  6. Write notes or send cards regularly so your co-worker knows you think of how he or she is doing outside of work. Consider doing this from time to time throughout the next year.
  7. Be prepared to hang in there with compassion and concern for a long time, since grief has no particular finish line.
  8. Tune-in to your co-worker’s moods and needs. Sometimes the need is for quiet and solitude, sometimes for chatting about any topic but the loss. Take the lead from him or her; sometimes the need may be to talk about the person who died.
  9. Be flexible as you try to compassionately respond. Each day is a “first” in one way or another for a griever, especially throughout the first year as she or he copes with an unfolding future without the person who died.
  10. Remember you are one of many persons who is offering help and support. Be considerate of when it may be time to step back and give your co-worker more space. Or if you realize that your co-worker needs more support than you can give, encourage that they seek professional grief support through a local hospice.
If you are genuine and sensitive in your responses, you will be an important and consistent source of support to your co-worker both in the days immediately after the death and in the long period of healing that follows a significant loss.