I am a person well-acquainted with grief (no biblical reference intended here). My father was a minister for over 55 years, and I worked in a hospital morgue for 7 years. I’ve been to quite a few funerals over my lifetime for people I loved.
I was fortunate to have known my great-grandmother (she didn’t pass away until I was 16, so I spent significant time with her), my grandmothers (on both sides), my great-grandfather and grandfathers (on both sides), etc. However, my mother died fairly young, and my father just passed away recently. During the pandemic, a significant number of friends have experienced a loss, and in particular, a number of colleagues at work have lost loved ones.
So what do you do when a coworker is grieving? And, more important, what should you not do? I’ll cover both of those recommendations here.
Just be there
You don’t need to go overboard on the “I’m here for you, if you need anything call, I’ll be happy to help, I’ve been through this before..” routine. Just be brief, simple, and just BE THERE. Relative to that, don’t forget to LISTEN. Typically, a person who is overcome with a recent loss is not ready to “chit-chat” or talk about it. However, if they ARE ready, don’t jump in and start dispensing advice.
Just listen. That’s what they want, someone to listen to them and to understand how they feel. Often they are burdened with grief or guilt or regret or — you get the idea — so let them “unload” on you. Just listen. Many people want to be alone with grief, but others want to share their feelings to a friend. You may not consider yourself a friend of theirs, but coworkers spend a lot of time together (nearly 1/3 of your days are spent with coworkers!). Often people need someone outside the situation to talk with about grief. So use both ears and listen, listen, listen.
DON’T try to project your experiences on the person who is grieving. My father was adamant about is that. In other words, don’t say things like, “Oh, I know just how you feel” or “I’ve been there, it’s never easy” or “You just need time to heal.”
YOU DON’T KNOW what kind of relationship your coworker had with the deceased. You can never know. No one’s relationship with family or close friends is exactly like someone else’s relationships. Or yours. Certainly, if you’ve suffered loss you can more easily identify with another person who is dealing with a loss, but you cannot claim to know what they’re experiencing.
Loss is personal, every loss is unique, and no one truly understands the depth of someone else’s personal grief. So don’t go there. Just listen, be there and be kind.
Don’t give advice
While it may be tempting to tell the individual what you did to deal with your grief or how you handled the situation, don’t do it. They are not confiding in you for advice; if they were, they would ASK for advice.
My grandmother had two proverbs about giving advice:
“Never give advice unless asked.”
“The people sensible enough to give good advice are usually sensible enough to give none.”
I also saw this maxim online:
“People don’t always need advice. Sometimes all they really need is a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and a heart to understand them.”
I think that pretty much sums it up. In fact, I think in these situations it’s best never to give advice unless it’s requested. I once had a coworker ask me about cremation and how it blended with their beliefs. Honestly, I just listened to them and occasionally nodded my head in agreement. I didn’t think it was the proper time (or situation) for me to impress my beliefs about cremation to them.
I spoke to them again about the same topic, and they thanked me for not being perfunctory or adamant about my personal beliefs; they just needed someone there to listen, and that’s what I did. The best advice is often “don’t.”
Sure, I have opinions. (My wife does too. She says she’s having me cremated so I can get used to the heat. Ouch!) But in situations like these I keep my opinions to myself unless someone really, really wants to hear them — and that seldom happens. Take heed, and as Mark Twain once said, “Never pass on a good opportunity to shut up.”
Give them some space
I realize this seems to contradict the concept above of “just be there,” but many people are very private about their personal lives around the workplace. Be considerate enough to back off, give them some space and to let them deal with their grief on their own terms. When they are ready, they will reengage with their coworkers and perhaps (maybe so, maybe not) talk about their feelings. But it’s not your job to make them talk about. If they want to share, they will.
Too often coworkers feel an obligation to force people to talk, to pressure people to share personal information or to tell people that “it’s best to get it all out there,” when, in fact, that is truly the opposite of what the person wants. When my father passed away, my staff just let me know they were there for me when I wanted to share, but then they backed off and let me deal with my grief.
That was truly a gift. I had a close relationship with my father. He was my role model and idol. He was in decent health (for being 92) and pretty sound mind; I had just spoken with him the week before he had a sudden accident and passed away.
I experienced a range of emotions — anger, frustration, hurt, loneliness, sadness and true grief. I wasn’t fit to really talk to anyone about anything and took some time away. When I came back to the office, my colleagues gave me a true outpouring of compassion, kindness and consideration. They knew I had to deal with things on my own schedule and in my own way.
Keep these concepts in mind when one of your coworkers/employees is dealing with a loss. Your concern is always appreciated, but your intrusion may not be welcome. Just let people know you are there to listen, you are concerned, you are compassionate, then step back and wait for them to contact you. They will reach out when they are ready.
Respect their wishes
Just because you work with them doesn’t mean you are free to push your beliefs, your understanding, your methods on your coworker. I have, unfortunately, experienced this at my workplace, and I’ll tell you that story here for an example. But first, let me share another quote from my father: “The loss of a child is the worst thing that can ever happen to someone.”
He mentioned that often. He did many funerals for children over those 55 years of ministry; he also stated those were the “roughest and most difficult” situations of his long career.
I was a CEO of a company of about 45 people. It was a great experience. For the most part, we all worked together like family and we constantly broke records for revenues every year, while providing a great atmosphere for work. We shared in triumphs — new births, graduations, marriages, great vacations, retirements — and we also shared our hard times — divorces, financial troubles, illnesses, difficult times and yes — sadly — deaths.
A true example of grief in the workplace
An individual on our clerical staff (we’ll call her Carol) lost a teenage child in a tragic accident. We contacted her right away, asked her to call on us anytime for any help she might need, and told her not to worry over work right now, just take care of things. About 10 days after the accident, she called me to tell me she just wasn’t ready to come back to work. As per my points above, I simply said, “Call when you are ready, don’t worry over it, we will just put you on paid leave’ until you feel you’re ready to return. And please call us if there’s anything we can do to help.”
I heard the pain in her voice and could hear her weeping softly over the phone as she said, “He was all the family I had.” Carol hung up, and I let Human Resources and the staff know that she would not be back until further notice. I called her back in 10 minutes (after speaking to HR) and told her about the employee assistance program, about grief counseling, and that we all cared for her.
She seemed to appreciate that and said she would definitely call them (she did, eventually, and truly benefitted from that aspect of our benefits). Of course, people were curious, but all we told them was she was still grieving and that she would notify us when she was ready to return.
Another week and a half went by. I heard from Carol regularly, she called at least every other day and although it was obvious she was struggling, she was an amazingly strong individual and thus notified me she would be back at work the following Monday.
She let me know that it was okay to tell the other employees that her son had passed away, she was dealing with the grief, and while it was a terrible loss, she felt getting back to work would be good for her. She didn’t want flowers or anything to make a big deal out of it. She just wanted some time to cope with the grief. That seemed reasonable to most of us (although many of us sent cards and we did send flowers to her home, and some brought food to her).
But, unfortunately, immediately upon Carol’s return three particular employees pulled her aside to ask questions like: What happened? How did it happen? Could it have been prevented? Whose fault was it? How are you dealing with this, it’s just terrible!
One individual even asked, “Was your son saved before he died?” Carol came running to my office in tears, and said, “I need to go home. I thought I was ready, but I’m not. I need to go home now.” I just sat and listened to her talk for a bit, then she seemed calmer and said, “I’ll be back tomorrow, but could you ask people to just stick to work topics for a while, please?” And she left.
Right or wrong, I immediately called a company-wide meeting.
“We all know Carol has suffered a tremendous tragedy — the passing of her son,” I said. “We need to RESPECT HER WISHES and not talk about it right now. I am sure that when she feels ready, she will talk about to whomever she desires. But right now, she’s asked us to give her space, be understanding and to respect her wishes, and her wishes are to just come back to work and focus on work.
“Please do not ask her for details. They’re none of your business. At this time, she needs support — not questions — and she needs us to let her grieve. You can tell her you’re “here for her”; you can tell her you will “help in any way”; you can tell her you are sympathetic — but don’t try to force her to talk about it. Are there any questions?”
There were no questions, everyone seemed to be in agreement, and we all went back to work. Carol came back on Wednesday; she got through the entire day and seemed to be okay. After about three weeks, she started talking to some of her closest coworkers about her feelings, the situation, and the future. She took advantage of the EAP, and went to counseling.
She got her life back together over time. (I can’t use the word “recovered” because does one ever recover from the death of a child? My father didn’t think so) She was an outstanding employee. She also spoke to me, and she told me how painful it was to talk about it, and how she appreciated (she had heard from others) how I asked people to back off and let her grieve.
What if you are the one who has lost a loved one? (I’m assuming you’re asking me for advice.) Should you suffer a loss, it may be easiest for you (and others) if you state what you need, want, or don’t want. If you want to be treated as if nothing has happened and just get back to business, say that. If you want conversation or need understanding, let people know that.
Mostly, they want to know how you are handling the loss and if you’re OK. It will help others help you — whether it’s by helping or by acting as if nothing has changed. One of my colleagues wanted business as usual, but she also wanted others to know why she was crying in her office if she happened to have a moment. After all, grief has a way of spilling down our cheeks, even when we’re trying to hold it all together.
We all approach grief — and loss — differently. Every situation is unique; every loss is personal and individual; and we will never know the depth of loss others experience. But we can be supportive; we can be encouraging; and we can “be there,” letting those who are grieving have their space but also letting them know we are there for them.
Don’t try to advise people from your point of view unless someone actually wants to know (and tells you so). Always respect the wishes of the person affected by loss; some want to talk about pour their hearts out to you, and some are very private and don’t want to talk to anyone. Don’t be offended by that; just understand we are all different, and we all handle situations in our own way.
Be sensitive enough to let people handle grief in their own way. Just be supportive, understanding, and listen. Everyone appreciates people caring and being supportive. You can do that without being overwhelming.
And now forgive me for giving you advice when you didn’t request it. 😉
Originally published at http://incubatorblogger.wordpress.com on April 20, 2021.