How to Support a Grieving Coworker

I had the misfortune of losing both of my grandmothers within a few years of each other. Having been very close to them, their passings truly rocked my world, and there are days that I still struggle with them being gone. While they were not my first losses, they were the first losses I experienced as an adult, which means it was the first time I was dealing with grief in the workplace.

Through these emotional experiences, I realized how helpful it can be when coworkers handle your grief with grace. While I was overwhelmed thinking about the hundreds of emails piling up while I was out of the office, the approaching deadlines I was now behind on, and how I would handle all of this and more, while still grieving, my coworkers provided just the right balance of support and privacy.

While everyone is different and may have unique preferences, my losses and the efforts my coworkers made to support me helped me feel more equipped to gauge others coworkers’ needs and preferences. Here are the steps I take to respond if someone else experiences a loss.

Streamline communication

When I lost my grandmother last year, my coworkers did a great job of providing support, while not overwhelming me. Many coworkers reached out via text simply to say, “Thinking of you,” without digging for information. For more detailed or logistical questions, however, (How many days will you be out? Are the services open to the public?), my supervisor served as the primary contact. Having one point of contact streamlined communications and only forced me to answer questions once, which was just about all I could muster the energy for.

Send condolences

One question my supervisor asked in both instances was my preference for receiving condolences. For instance, was I comfortable sharing my home address? When I said I was, many coworkers sent simple, but thoughtful, sympathy cards. Others chose to leave them on my desk for when I returned, and some waited until the end of the day to hand them off so I didn’t have to face the topic of loss as soon as I arrived. All were equally appreciated gestures.

Outside of cards, my boss asked if my family was accepting flowers for services or requesting donations instead. Being able to share our preferences was a surprisingly comforting way to gain a tiny bit of control during a time when I felt like I had none.

How have you supported a coworker through loss?

Respect boundaries

When I experience loss, I tend to clam up more than usual, especially at work. This isn’t because I don’t trust my coworkers, but because I know I’m likely to tear up as soon as someone shows me compassion. For me, crying in public is embarrassing and not something I want to experience at work. So, it was important that my coworkers respected the boundaries I set to keep this from happening.

If I felt comfortable sharing, I would. But if I was feeling more emotional, I would either directly say, “Thank you, but I don’t want to talk about it right now,” or would try to show them that I was ready to talk about something else by giving shorter responses or changing the subject.

Small gestures

For even the most composed person, addressing someone else’s loss can be tricky. When I lost my grandmothers, I could tell that some of my coworkers didn’t know what to say, but many of them made small gestures that meant a lot more than words could.

My coworkers offered me comfort by both doing and being. They did simple things — agreeing to reschedule meetings if I asked or sharing notes from an important meeting I missed. They also provided support by just being present with me, acknowledging my loss, and having a conversation with me despite the fact that grief can be an uncomfortable subject.

While these gestures were small in effort or time given, they were actually the big reasons that I was able to transition back to the workplace in a healthy way.

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