Helping a Grieving Employee

About 2.5 million deaths occur every year in the United States.  If each death touches several survivors (a spouse, a child, a sibling or friend), it is easy to calculate that millions of persons are grieving at any given time.
Since many grievers also have jobs, it is no exaggeration to say that grief goes to work everyday. Yet the workplace is often unprepared to acknowledge and integrate the reality of loss and bereavement. Employers, supervisors and even co-workers can all play a role in expressing compassion and providing support for grievers on the job, while keeping the goal of resuming and maintaining normal productivity.
As a compassionate employer/manager, you can:
  • Learn more about the grieving process through articles on this site; while each article focuses on specific topics, a core fact is that grief is a normal reaction to loss, and every person’s loss and grief experience is unique.
  • Appoint someone to be a primary communicator (PC) with a grieving employee even before he or she returns to work.  (Be sure this choice is acceptable to the employee.) The PC can help simplify communication, keep current with information about the funeral and other events, and, with the employee’s permission, pass it on to others. This process helps shield the employee from having to share the story repeatedly.
  • Offer support in brief statements: “I am so sorry for your loss.” “We all want to support you through this as much as we can.” “How can we as a company best help?”
  • Be mindful of specific cultural, spiritual and ethnic traditions of your employee in order to respond properly.
  • Encourage co-workers to send cards or notes, attend the memorial rituals and ceremonies, bring food and flowers, and make employees aware of the family’s preference for memorial gifts.
  • Provide offers of concrete help: “Is there anything from your desk I can bring to you or anything that I can help you do at work?”  “Can I run errands for you?”  “I want to bring you a dinner. When would be a good day?”
  • Remember that returning to work often helps grievers feel confident that they are able to function and feel secure about the future. However, depending on your company’s bereavement policies and the responsibilities the person has after their loved one’s death; you may need to develop a plan for the griever to return to work gradually.
  • Be observant of your employee’s moods, offering as much flexibility in the workplace for quiet and solitude as possible.
  • Realize that grief is often a roller coaster of emotions and has no specific finish line. After a loss, your employee will be going through many “firsts” (holidays, birthdays, etc.) These times, while difficult, will provide opportunities to be attentive and sympathetic while still helping him or her focus on job responsibilities. 
Thoughtful responses to a grieving employee will benefit your company by supporting and retaining these employees while creating a positive atmosphere that acknowledges the reality of grief and loss.