Your coworker has not been at work for a while and you’ve learned that their family member has passed away. You sympathize, but worry about the right thing to say. You might also worry that your words may trigger a display of strong emotions from your coworker, making you both uncomfortable. It’s common to want to just avoid your coworker altogether. But more than anything, the best response is to just say or do something simple that demonstrates a connection so that your bereaved coworker feels less isolated during this challenging time. Keep in mind that even an awkward show of support can be deeply meaningful for someone who is struggling.
While there is no set formula, here are some general guidelines to follow when a coworker experiences a personal loss.
Use a simple phrase to express sympathy. Saying a heartfelt “I’m sorry for your loss” lets them know you care. Consider a time that may be best for the other person to receive your condolences—not necessarily when it’s best for you. At the end of the day, with fewer people around, is often a better time to connect. Remember, you can also write a note or send flowers in place of face-to-face conversation in the office.
Above all, listen. A grieving person often needs the chance to tell the story of their loss. This helps them gain a bit more perspective, which can help lessen the stress of the loss. You may need to listen to the story again and again as your colleague works through the grieving process.
Expect tears and sadness. You don’t have to say anything in response, just acknowledge this expression of grief. Additionally, accept that the grieving person’s moods may be changeable and that intense feelings may emerge and re-emerge from time to time.
Be careful of sharing your own stories of grief. Telling your own tale of loss could be intolerable for your coworker to hear right now.
Respect the grieving person’s desire for privacy. Honor closed doors and silence in conversation.
Offer specific and appropriate assistance. Some examples: Offer to cook a meal, care for children or pets, or to help with shopping, chores or errands.
Remember to include the coworker in social plans held at work. Let them decide whether to accept or decline the lunch invitation, for instance.
Understand that your coworker may be unable to give their very best performance at work for a while. If possible, offer to ease their workload and pick up one of their projects.
Be aware that the grieving process takes time. Don’t expect your coworker to quickly “snap out of it.” And, no matter what expression of sympathy and compassion you are most comfortable with, continue to offer a listening ear, smile or cup of coffee. Your continued support is likely to be greatly appreciated.