Relationship Tips

How To Effectively and Appropriately Support a Colleague Navigating the Death of a Loved One

Kells McPhillips

Photo: Getty Images/Leo Patrizi
When it comes to grieving the loss of a loved one, there are no hard-and-fast rules; the process can take weeks, months, or years. But if you find yourself in the position of consoling someone who's experienced a loss—particularly if that someone who is grieving is a colleague—there are some definite do's and don'ts to keep in mind before writing an email or offering your condolences in a public morning meeting. Grief expert Liz Eddy, co-founder and CEO of Lantern, an end-of-life planning service, says that the question of how to support a grieving co-worker really comes down to how close you are to that person.

"What's really important to consider here is, depending on your degree of closeness to this person, you might not be the right person to support them and to help them navigate this process," says Eddy. "You might not be the person that they want to talk to." Although you may feel compelled to reach out and offer your support in the form of Zoom calls, casseroles, or picking up a few of their tasks, it's vital to consider whether your actions will actually help them... or simply become one more thing for them to worry about.

"It can be overwhelming and also sort of feel like a responsibility to have to respond to everybody. So I think a nice touch is to say, 'Don't feel like you have to respond'." —Liz Eddy, grief expert

"When you're the person that's going through the loss, there tends to be sort of a heavy outpouring early on of condolences. And it can be overwhelming and also sort of feel like a responsibility to have to respond to everybody. So I think a nice touch is to say, 'Don't feel like you have to respond'," Eddy says. This concern of emotional pressure is particularly noteworthy during pandemic times that have made grief feel like a more present force in many of our lives.

Below Eddy offers tips for how to best support a grieving co-worker, whether they're an acquaintance, close professional friend, or a manager—because, as she's said, your role in a colleague's grief journey varies greatly depending on how close you are to them. Still, before you proceed with writing an email or offering condolences via Slack, remember to do a second check with your gut.

How to support a grieving co-worker who's navigating the death of a loved one, depending on how close you are.

If you and your colleague are acquaintances, keep your condolences simple

If you feel empathy for this person's loss, but you're not exactly close to them, Eddy recommends writing them an email or Slack message that says, "I'm thinking of you and I'm here if you need anything. Please don't feel like you need to reply to this." Eddy contends that the last bit is especially important because the person grieving won't feel a polite need to respond.

Once you've sent this message, don't reach back out to this person unless they explicitly ask you for something. Now, they need time and space.

If your close work friend is going through a loss, be there without making it about you

According to Eddy, the protocol for a close work friend in bereavement should be about the same as if they were a distant colleague—at least in the beginning of their grieving process. Reach out to offer your condolences, state that you're there for them, and give them an out so they don't feel like they need to reply. The difference? With a close work friend, you're more likely to receive a "Yes, I'd love to talk" in response to your offer. "Then I think the most important thing is just being present, being an active listener, and—if you've had a similar loss—make sure you're not making comparisons. Really just sort of focusing the energy on the person's experience," says Eddy.

Once you're in a dialogue with them about their loss, make sure you don't drop that conversation. You can even set a calendar reminder to check in on them—especially on the anniversary of the loved one's death.

If you're a manager to someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, make sure they know the ways in which the company (and you) can support them

When you're a direct manager or a human resources representative at the company, Eddy recommends offering two types of support to a grieving co-worker: active and passive. First, make sure the employee is aware of the company's bereavement policy, which could mean talking with them about resources. This is indirect support—and it's really important for establishing a baseline that shows your direct report that you're there for them.

"In a more active role, it's about marking down anniversaries and important dates, making sure that their work is off their plate particularly in the time where they're out, and ensuring their important relationships are being managed by somebody else," says Eddy. These types of actions will translate to your employee feeling like they can honestly log out and care for themselves without worrying about dropping the ball on work responsibilities.

When, eventually, the employee returns from bereavement leave, continue to communicate to listen to their needs and respond accordingly with the correct resources. And, of course, remember that—unlike so much of work—grief has no deadline. Give them time to reckon with it.

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