What To Say Or Do (Grief in the Workplace)
What To Say Or Do (Grief in the Workplace)
Dear Tacit,

I am a team lead for a smaller business and the mother of one of my team members just passed away.  Please provide some insight on what to say or do, given this sensitive situation.

Signed: What To Say Or Do

Dear What To Say Or Do,

Most of us want to offer support and caring when we find out that a colleague has just suffered the loss of someone that they cared about.  But it is often awkward to know how to respond in these situations, especially in a workplace environment.

Let’s start with what not to do… Please do not ignore the death, try to avoid the subject, or look the other way when the person who is grieving walks into the room.  Acting as though the loss has not happened is in no way going to help the person who is grieving.  Not acknowledging another person’s grief does not show a respect for privacy, or protect the person from their pain.  It is not supportive (or good manners) to try to act as though the other person is not struggling with whatever they are going through.

Avoid saying things like: “I know how you feel”; “At least she isn’t suffering anymore”; “It was a good way to go”; “She had a good long life”; and “Just try to keep your mind off of it by staying busy”.

Instead, acknowledge the grief/loss (even just briefly) and show compassion towards the person who is in mourning.  Recognize that anything you say is not likely going to make that individual feel much better.  But you can hold space for that person so they do not feel quite so alone.  Allow them to have their feelings, without judgement.  They might need to talk, or to cry (offer tissues as needed), or to still be included in invitations to activities (not isolated because they are going through a hard time).  The grieving person needs to know that you understand that they may not be themselves for a while, as they process the loss they have experienced.  And they need to be assured that this is okay.

Try saying things like: “I’m sorry for your loss”; “I am thinking of you”; or “How can I help?”. If you feel comfortable doing so, ask questions about the loved one who has passed away (this allows the person to connect more).  Or share a kind or loving memory about the person who has died, if you knew them personally.  Think about maybe attending the funeral (as a show of unity and support), or sending a card or flowers, or helping with practical things (like dropping off a meal; popping over to help clean or do laundry; mow a lawn or shovel a driveway; offer to go grocery shopping, etc).  But most of all, show your co-worker patience and understanding.

A grieving person is not going to be their normal work self again until they have been able to release some of their pain.  It is important to note that there is no specific timeline that can be expected for this process.  Sometimes the grief may not even seem to appear for weeks or months after a loss.  A significant event (a birthday, Mother’s Day, etc), even years later, can sometimes bring waves of grief back again, after the mourning had seemed to lessen.  For most people who experience uncomplicated grief, the emotional struggles will likely begin to lessen sometime between 6 months and two years after the loss of the person that they cared about.  But for anyone going through a more complicated situation, the feelings of loss and suffering can last much longer.

As a person grieves, there may be issues with their ability to function in their job. They will likely struggle with their ability to concentrate; they may have no or low motivation; or they may seem more confused, forgetful, angry/short tempered (or moody) and have difficulty making decisions.  As someone who is trying to support everyone on your team, you may have to have some very clear (but supportive) conversations about what else the grieving person needs during this difficult period.

To do this, I suggest you start by asking the person how they think they are functioning.  Perhaps say something like, “I noticed you seem distracted and withdrawn, and I’m concerned.  How can I help?”.  Listen carefully and validate (reflect back to them) what is being said so you are sure that you are understanding the person’s perspective correctly and so they truly feel heard.  Thank them for sharing the information and for being vulnerable.  And then discuss realistic support options that will work for everyone involved.  Perhaps a re-distribution of work will be needed or extra time can be given to complete projects.  There might need to be some flexibility with some time off; or the decision to not assign any new tasks to the person for a short while might be made.  Of course, there might be a need for more in-depth support and a discussion about options for referrals to professional grief counsellors will be helpful.  As team lead, you will want to keep checking in with the grieving staff member on a regular basis – not wait until they come to you, or until there are bigger issues developing within the team.

Grief is a painful and overwhelming emotion. It is something that we will ALL experience, many times throughout our lives.  Be patient with your team member who is experiencing this tragic loss – and remind them to be patient with themselves.  As a general rule, treat the person the way you would want to be treated, if the same thing was happening to you!

Take care!

Have a question? Please feel free to reach out to us at counsellors@tacitknows.com. Your answer will be provided confidentially. 

Want to start your counselling today?
Make an Appointment

Add Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Tacit Knowledge Logo

Sign Up For Our Newsletter