How to Support a Coworker Who Is Experiencing Grief from Loss

Anna Johansson

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In American culture, there are certain aspects of life that we aren't particularly adept at dealing with. One such area is death, and in particular, the grief that follows it. Death and grief in the workplace is a particularly awkward manifestation of this discomfort.

Most people, perhaps yourself included, simply don't know what to do or say when a coworker has suffered the loss of a close friend or loved one. And, unfortunately, this often leads to the coworker feeling disrespected, misunderstood, or unloved.

By learning how to properly approach grief in the wake of a loss, we can be more respectful, supportive, and caring to those around us—particularly in the workplace. It won't ever be easy, but at least we can play a positive—albeit tiny—role in promoting proper healing.

The Proper Way to Support a Coworker

Structure and formality in the workplace makes grief support such a difficult topic to broach.

"When we're in a properly functioning workplace, we have boundaries between ourselves and others in the way we dress, in the way we speak to each other, and in the way we behave," says Jodi RR. Smith of Mannersmith Etiquette Consulting.

"For example, when people come to my house, I hug them as a greeting, but in a workplace setting, I may not hug them," Smith continues. "When we talk about grief in the office, we are blurring that boundary. In general, somebody passing away is really part of our personal lives, but it is so important and affects us so deeply that it does come about in our professional lives."

If we want to promote a healthy work environment that cares for an individual as much as the bottom line, we can't push serious personal issues like grief to the side. Emotional support is an exceptionally important piece of the puzzle.

It won't always feel comfortable or easy, but here are some simple ways you can help a grieving coworker who is dealing with loss:

1. Make Contact: Because you don't know what to say, you'll feel a voice inside of you telling you to just ignore it. It probably won't be so blunt, but you'll come up with excuses like, "She's so busy that she doesn't have time to talk to me. I'll see her when she gets back to the office." It's important to shut these voices down and make contact in the days immediately following your coworker's loss.

You don't have to call you coworker—though you should if you're close.

Simply sending a brief note via email, text, or mail is enough to let them know you're thinking about them. A note or call also reminds them that they have support when they eventually do return to the office.

2. Don't Tell Your Coworker How to Grieve: "Even if you have experienced grief yourself, it doesn't mean that your employee or colleague will view it or handle it the same way," Dr. Gloria Horsley writes for Forbes. "It's an individual process that hits people in different ways over various time periods. Keep this in mind as you support them on this journey toward recovery."

Unless specifically asked for input, don't tell a coworker how to grieve. Let them handle the process as they see fit. This is the only way to promote proper healing.

3. Avoid the Clichés—Offer a Shoulder: Whatever you do, don't use generic clichés when welcoming a mourning coworker back to the office. Saying things like "It's going to be okay" may seem innocent enough, but they can actually be disrespectful. According to Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a few years back, "Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not."

When words won't suffice, offer a shoulder to cry on—figuratively and (perhaps) literally. This is the sign of a supportive person who understands that pain is real.

4. Don't Overthink Things: The discomfort you feel regarding issues of death and grief can put your mind in a tailspin. The important thing to remember is that you don't have to be a savior to your mourning coworker.

That's not your role.

Instead, you simply have the responsibility of being present and providing a safe place for your coworker to work through the messiness and unpredictability of grief.

Anna is a freelance writer, researcher, and business consultant. She is also a columnist for Entrepreneur.com, Forbes.com, and more. Anna specializes in entrepreneurship, technology, and social media trends. Follow her on Twitter and LinkedIn.

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