Over the last year, my brother, my mother, a close friend, and six relatives have died. A couple of weeks after my brother’s death, I felt terribly guilty. I suddenly realized that, until that point, I’d had no clue how to support colleagues and friends who had lost loved ones. While I had good intentions, I had done the very things that were not working for me now.
My colleagues also had good intentions. They wanted to support me, but didn’t always know how. The offers of support that were most challenging were targeted at taking action and moving things along before I was ready. Instead of feeling replenished, they left me feeling tired, confused, or anxious.
Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can support a grieving colleague: doing or being. Mourners need both.
We’re well-trained in doing through our work. We’re primed to leave every meeting with a set of action items. Activities like making a meal or picking up the kids from karate can make us feel valuable, demonstrably useful. Doing is familiar, easy, and comfortable.
But being can be uncomfortable, especially when you’re trying to support a coworker through loss. What does it look like to simply be with a colleague who is grieving? It looks like empathy.
- Brené Brown, author of Daring Greatly, captures this idea well in her short video that distinguishes between the disconnecting properties of sympathy and the connection we gain through empathy. In the video, she refers to nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman, whose research shows empathy to be the capacity to recognize others’ perspectives as their true experience, to recognize others’ emotions and articulate them, and to avoid judgment. These are all active, not passive, qualities — but they’re a type of action that we don’t equate to checking things off a list.
Being might be as simple as allowing your coworker to cry in your presence with the blinds closed. Being with your colleagues through exercising empathy and compassion brings you closer to each other. It’s harder for some of us, because this type of action requires us to be vulnerable, and it also requires us to be comfortable with someone else’s raw, vulnerable feelings. This may not be for everyone, or even something you offer to everyone.
Both doing and being can be helpful, depending on the person and the timing. It’s all in how we position our support to our colleagues. Here are some ways to do so and to strengthen your relationship with a coworker when they’re grieving.
Don’t ask. The questions you ask a grieving colleague can be targeted at specific action. Don’t ask how they’re doing, how you can help, or what happened. Keep it short and simple. Asking forces your coworker to do something; they have to decide whether and what to share, which they might not be capable of at that time. Instead, try saying, “I’m thinking of you,” “I’m holding you in my thoughts,” or “I’ll check in from time to time.” Because they might need some practical help, simply offer specific tasks you could do for them, and let them decide what, if anything, they would like you to do: “I want you to know you can call on me to help at any time. I can bring over meals, organize volunteers to help, run errands, make phone calls that are hard for you to make right now, walk with you, talk with you, or make a mean cup of chai. Just let me know when you’re ready to make those kinds of decisions.”
Don’t compare. Mourning my mother is radically different from mourning my brother. After my brother’s sudden death, I wanted to be with my immediate family and curl up in a ball on the sofa, doing nothing but sleeping deeply at night. After my mother’s long battle with Alzheimer’s, I’m eager to seek out friends and go on daily walks, but I can only sleep a few hours at a time. We’re all different in how we mourn. And the grieving process for each person is different depending on whom we mourn. Instead of going into a long description about what was helpful for you when you lost a loved one, briefly let your colleague know whether you’ve also lost someone, and say, “I can’t imagine what this is like for you.” Your colleague might ask you how it was for you, or might just take comfort in knowing they’re not alone.
Don’t rush it. Just because you’re seeing your coworker for the first time since their loss, don’t feel compelled to blurt out your condolences right before the start of a business meeting. Make eye contact and notice they’re there. Afterward, send them an email letting them know you’re thinking of them or welcoming them back. Ask them when or how they’d like you to bring up your support and condolences in person. When in doubt, offer your condolences in private, during a lunch break, or when your colleague doesn’t have to set aside their raw emotions and get into business mode.
Don’t track their progress. While we know that the acuteness of grief will dull over time, many people in the throes of grieving aren’t ready to hear that, or to think about letting go of the grieving process. During brief pauses in their pain, they might feel guilty when they’ve managed to set aside sadness for a short time. Instead of saying, “Are you doing any better?” or “I’m glad you came to the party. It must mean you’re doing better,” simply try, “It’s good to see you” or “I’m glad you came.”
Don’t think of this as a one-and-done. Grieving will take many forms over time. Some days I want to be by myself and shut out the world. Other days I’d love time with a friend or I crave a hug. And still others I’d simply appreciate having help to sort through my brother’s paperwork. Let your colleague know that you’re around. Set a reminder to check in with them every two weeks or so. When checking in, keep it short. Try a simple text, such as “Thinking of you” or “Here to support you whenever you need it.”
Don’t ignore them. After reading all these don’ts, you might be nervous to do anything. But don’t let your level of discomfort lead you to say nothing. Ultimately, your support and intentions will come through. Simply focus on your colleague and take your cue from them.
Your bereaved colleague will appreciate your intent to support them. Give them the space to call on your support as and when they need it, without being too forceful. Make your intentions known, and then leave it up to them to guide you in how far to go.