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How to Help – and How Not to Help – a Grieving Co-worker

Betsy Bottino Arenella

It’s Jeffrey’s first day back at work since his daughter’s sudden death two weeks ago. His co-worker Holly sees him coming down the hallway toward her and panics: what is she going to say? What if Jeffrey completely breaks down?

Holly dodges into the nearest empty cubicle and hides until Jeffrey has walked by. She’ll say something to him later, she tells herself.

Several minutes later, another co-worker, Mick, enters Jeffrey’s cubicle with a pile of religious pamphlets. Mick, who is very devout, tries to comfort Jeffrey by telling him that God chooses the very best children to become angels, and that Jeffrey’s daughter is in a much better place.

Both Holly and Mick mean well, but neither one’s actions may be helpful to Jeffrey in his grief. Comforting a grieving person, especially one suffering the most devastating loss of all – that of a child – can be very difficult. While each person’s grief is quite individual, a few guidelines can help coworkers support their colleague.

1. Don’t Run Away: Unbeknownst to Holly, Jeffrey sees her ducking into a cubicle to avoid him. Grief can be incredibly isolating; the person is suffering enough without feeling that others don’t want to be around him.

2. Do Acknowledge The Person’s Loss: A hand clasp, a hug or an “I’m so sorry,” can mean the world to a grieving person. If Jeffrey breaks down, it is okay. It is normal and healthy for the griever to cry.

3. Don’t Assume That Religious Or Other “Comforting” Sayings Will Help: Although Jeffrey and Mick do happen to share the same faith, Jeffrey’s belief in a benevolent higher power is being sorely tested right now. Like any parent, Jeffrey would give anything to have his daughter back with him and his family here on earth rather than anywhere else.

4. Just Listen: A grieving person often may feel the need to repeat the story of the death and go over the details; he is working it through in his mind. The best way to support him is to listen sympathetically. Nodding and murmuring are all the feedback the person may need. Second-guessing the doctors, wondering whether the parents could have done something differently or telling stories of your own children’s near-misses are not helpful. Death often brings survivors’ guilt that does not need to be fed.

5. Ask The Griever What He Needs: Don’t be afraid to say, “How can I support you?” Sometimes the griever doesn’t know what he needs; that’s okay. But the person may tell you, “I need to talk about it,” or “I need to not talk about it for a while,” giving you a sense of what to do. Even better, the grieving person’s manager may wish to have this conversation with his employee before his return and share the person’s wishes with the group.

6. Do Bring Up The Deceased’s Name: The most painful part of grief can be others’ reluctance to mention the person who died. Grievers can tell you that hearing the deceased’s name has a positive effect, not a negative effect. It is comforting to know that others remember a loved one with fondness.

7. Have Reasonable Expectations For Work Performance: Grief is not only physically and emotionally exhausting, it affects short-term and even long-term memory. The grieving employee may have a hard time concentrating and remembering details. On the other hand, don’t do all his work for him: work can provide a welcome distraction to grief.

8.   It Ain’t Over After Six Months: Just because Jeffrey may seem better after six months, it doesn’t mean he’s not still deeply grieving his daughter. Grief is a lifelong process. Do continue to ask how he and his family are doing; he will appreciate your concern and your acknowledgement of the depth of his loss.

9. Do Recognize The Anniversary Of The Death: For many years after the death of a loved one, the anniversary of the death is a particularly difficult day. A simple card or flower, or just saying, “I’m thinking about you today,” can be incredibly comforting to the griever. Also be aware of any other dates, such as the deceased’s birthday or a widower’s wedding anniversary, which may trigger grief attacks.

10. Honor The Deceased: Planting a tree, installing a bench or donating to charity in the deceased’s name are wonderful symbolic ways to show caring. These actions are tangible reminders that the deceased is loved and missed.

Comforting a grieving person can be scary, awkward and confusing. But rest assured that these simple, kind gestures will be remembered forever by your colleague and friend.

Read other articles and learn more about Betsy Bottino Arenella.

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