How to support a colleague going through grief

How your organisation handles grief or loss is one of the most important ways to signify your organisational culture. A significant loss may not happen to every employee, but it will definitely happen to some of them. Your approach to the situation can literally make or break the psychological contract between you and that employee. How you support a colleague going through grief shows how human-centred your business is.

A good grief support programme is not just a social imperative though, it can also have a significant impact on employee engagement and productivity. Whilst there may be a short-term hit to your business through temporarily losing an employee to time off for bereavement, it will be far less than the cost of low productivity or disengagement that may ensue if inadequate support is given in the first place.

People cope with grief in different ways

If someone is not able to process and integrate their grief effectively, it can prime them for increased anxiety and depression which can lead to further time off work. Other employees will remember how their colleagues are treated too. When it’s done badly it can be a catalyst for people to leave. When it’s done well, supporting a grieving employee can actually create more loyalty and better engagement for your business.

Be aware that each person’s individual response to grief will be different. Some will want to talk about the person they have lost, or the event that has triggered the grief. Others will want to lose themselves in work as a way to distract themselves from the overwhelming emotions, thoughts and feelings they’re experiencing. You can support by following the person’s lead. Let them know you are there for them, but in their own time and space.

Remember that grief can come at many different points in life – it’s not just bereavement. The loss the person has suffered may also be pet loss, career or job loss, grief relating to the loss of a life that was planned for but which may never now be realised, and many others.

How to support a colleague going through grief – What not to do

  • Ignore what’s happening. If you do, it will become the elephant in the room with everyone feeling awkward and not knowing what to do, because they’re too afraid to mention what’s really happening. When it’s ignored, the colleague can end up feeling even more isolated and unsupported
  • Make an uninformed decision as to how much bereavement leave someone needs. Don’t just assume because you’re told that someone’s step-mother or cousin has died that they only need two days off work. Check first. That step-mother may actually have been the person who brought them up, or their cousin may have been closer to them than their sister. We cannot assume to know the depth of relationship based on the name of the relationship
  • Force an employee to come back too soon after a loss. It can mean they’re coming into work still in a state of shock. They may not even have had time to process the loss and suddenly they’re being expected to act as normal, to get on with the job. The funeral may not even have taken place or they may be involved in family politics about what the funeral should look like
  • Assume that you can make the person feel less alone or isolated by sharing your own stories of grief or loss. Sometimes this may be appropriate, others times, not. Be guided by the person
  • Try to talk them out of their grief, minimise their loss in reference to bigger losses or even cheer them up. Acknowledging their feelings, and that those feelings are valid, is a far more powerful approach

How to support a colleague going through grief – What to do

  • Ask the person how you can support them
  • Ask the person how they would like you to communicate what’s happening to them to colleagues and managers. If that’s not possible, then simply share that they’ve had a bereavement and will be taking some time off
  • Check in how they are doing – both immediately after the event and every so often – even as much as six months later, and on the anniversary of the loss (it may be a difficult day for the person even if they are at work and seemingly back on track)
  • Offer practical support such as linking them with an employee counselling service that can offer advice and support
  • Recognise that support does not just have to be verbal, sometimes just being made a cup of tea at an opportune moment can make all the difference
  • Support the person’s line manager to be supportive as well. If managers are inexperienced in dealing with grieving employees, they may not know what to do and might feel awkward, so guide them on how to be with the person. Explain that if the person becomes upset, often the best thing to do is just to sit and be with them. There’s no need to say anything or to offer what may be platitudes of comfort, no need to try to ‘fix’ the grief, just to sit and let the person know it’s ok for them to be upset. You might also want to share some stress management tools for the manager to use on themselves, so if they do find themselves feeling uncomfortable whilst supporting their colleague, they have something that will help them to cope too
  • Encourage colleagues to be supportive and even take on some of the load or shift things around when the person does return to work, so they can ease themselves back in without feeling overwhelmed and under pressure

Remember also, that grief can be complex. There is even such a thing as anticipatory grief. If you have a colleague who is, for example, dealing with a very unwell relative or perhaps someone who has dementia. They may not have physically lost the person as yet but they may be going through a series of ‘small deaths’ as the person they once knew starts to ‘disappear’. This can be very distressing. If you’re aware that someone is handling such a situation then making an opportunity to talk to them about how they are coping can be enormously helpful, and can reduce the impact on productivity overall if they feel they are being supported and understood.

If you or a colleague are going through grief, I can offer support through my 8-week Grief Management and Breathwork Programme

This powerful programme combines a structured grief management process to explore the nature of the grief being experienced and to move through it to a place of greater acceptance. It is combined with the power of breathwork to integrate and resolve difficult emotions. You can find out more about it here.