How to Support a Coworker Going Through Grief — 3 Things to Know To Avoid Overstepping

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How would you approach someone that is grieving? Chances are we all know someone either directly, or indirectly in the workplace that has lost a loved one. Perhaps you have successfully helped someone during a time of grief and would like some further, or perhaps you are unsure how to approach them worried you might say or do something that will make them feel uncomfortable. When the subject of grief comes up some people simply do not know how to reach out to a co-worker without overstepping boundaries at work. Below are some ways to communicate effectively while maintaining appropriate work boundaries to show your emotional support to those in an office setting.

It’s okay to feel uncomfortable.

It may seem intuitive to avoid a touchy subject fearful we may make matters worse. The truth is, grief is uncomfortable and challenging to process regardless of the level of closeness you may have with a coworker. It’s okay to feel uncomfortable about discussing it, but realizing support is essential to helping anyone heal is key. Try putting yourself in their place. If you were suffering would you feel lonelier if no one offered support? When my own uncle’s passing happened suddenly a year ago I was at a company where my boss was completely clueless and unsympathetic. When I came to him about how I was suffering he gave his condolences and acted as if nothing had happened. It was apparent he was uncomfortable. It was difficult experiencing that feeling of isolation at work. Reaching out on a low level with some communication is a good way to let them know you are there for support without pushing boundaries.

Provide subtle support at first.

Giving a general sympathy card, text or email speak volumes with little effort and a lot of meaning. If you know the person well, ask your HR department if the company can provide flowers for a funeral service or celebration of life is a good way to show support without approaching the griever directly. This lets your coworker know the entire department, team or company is behind them while ensuring you are staying within professional boundaries. Whether it is a card, text, email, or flowers we want our coworker to feel there is support should they choose or want it. Depending on their comfort level and personality it is extremely common for a colleague to keep private things private. Meaning, they only want to share the painful details with HR or their manager to allow them bereavement time. Emotional support to our colleagues is a key factor in this process.

Emotional support is key.

Emotional support prevents your colleague from feelings of isolation while showing them there is a person or group of people that care surrounding them. Making someone feel more like a person and less like a number shows compassion and humanity. I have supported multiple coworkers through times of grief. Some I knew well and others I did not. Offering emotional support, but not forcing it allows them to have a lifeline should they need it. Do not bring up the subject of loss unless they feel comfortable talking about it. Following their lead is the best course of action. I prefer to stick with factual statements or observations. Typically, I notice obvious changes in behavior or demeanor about that person. If they are unusually quiet, avoid eye contact, or just appear withdrawn from their usual demeanor I will take a mental note. If we happen to be in the breakroom or walking back from a meeting together I will bring up my observations, without drawing a conclusion. An example would be, “Sarah, I noticed you were extra quiet in today’s meeting. Usually you’re bubbly and talkative.” If they are silent I will offer my support indirectly by saying, “My workload slows down later this afternoon if you want to grab a coffee or feel like talking.” This gives them an open door to talk without forcing the subject. Maybe they would prefer to talk about anything else. It’s important to remember that although people need support that doesn’t always mean they want to talk about their pain. They might need a break from it, but people all grieve differently.

If I have worked for a long time with them, I may be a little more direct. I will continue to stick to the facts but may say something along the lines of, “Sarah, you’ve been exceptionally quiet today. I’m here for you.” Both approaches have worked well for me. This direct approach with people I have a long-standing working history has been helpful. On separate occasions, I have had coworkers volunteer that their loved ones passed. I offer my condolences and state I’m here for support. One woman burst into tears talking to me about the history she had with her best friend and how sudden her death had been. I offered her emotional support through actively listening. I remained focused on the fact that this was about her and not me. She needed to release all this sadness she had been holding onto. When she fell silent after talking I remarked it sounded like her friend was someone special in her life, and it sounded like they had so many memories together.  That shift in conversation helped her remember the positive aspects of a healthy emotional release.   

The main point is to allow the person grieving some space while supporting them. Ensure you are not pushing their boundaries, but if they open up try empathizing. Be an active listener and do not be afraid to point out things you notice if their behavior has changed drastically. Simply noticing and extending an offer to talk can help our coworkers through some very challenging emotional times.

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This article reflects the views of the author and not necessarily those of Fairygodboss.
Erica Barsi has over five years experience in HR. She is a published poet and full-time Content Review Associate. Connect with her on LinkedIn

What's your no. 1 piece of advice for supporting a coworker going through grief? Share your answer in the comments to help other Fairygodboss members!