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Helping a Grieving Friend in the Workplace

Written by Alan D. Wolfelt, PhD

How can you help?

A friend or acquaintance in your workplace has experienced the death of someone loved. You want to help, but are not sure how to go about it. This article will help you turn your cares and concerns into positive action.

You have an important role

Your support of a fellow employee can make a real difference in how they survive right now. Being present to a co-worker in grief means you are giving one of life's most precious gifts.


Do not underestimate how your efforts to help can make a real difference. Your supportive presence, particularly when he is just returning to work and in the weeks and months ahead, can make an important difference in how your co-worker heals.

Attending the funeral

Even if you didn't know the person who died, if the funeral will be local and especially if the person who died was a member of your co-worker's immediate family, it is very appropriate for you to attend the funeral. After all, funerals are for the living and right now your co-worker needs all the support they can get. They will appreciate your presence and acknowledgement of the loss

Understanding your co-worker's journey

Your co-worker is faced with an overwhelming journey. while the need to mourn is normal and necessary, it is often frightening, painful, and lonely. Your co-workers will not function "normally" int he workplace. Be sensitive and realize they will have difficulty with attention, concentration, memory, and lack of motivation.

Try to be patient and help whenever you can. Increasing your knowledge about the experience of grief will help you better understand what your co-worker is encountering.

Make contact

Reach out to your co-worker in grief. Do not anticipate that they will be able to reach out to you. Let them know that you are aware of their loss and that you are thinking about them.

It can be very appropriate to say, "I'm sorry that your mother passed away and I want you to know that I'm thinking of you." This lets your co-worker know that you are available to listen and can be sensitive to their feelings of sadness and loss

A touch of your hand, a look in your eye, or even a hug often communicates more than words can say. If you personally don't know the worker very well, join with others in sending a flowers or a sympathy card.

Listen with your heart

If your co-worker wants to talk about his grief, LISTEN. While the workplace cannot become a counselling center, listening is a small but important gift you can give. Your physical presence and commitment to listen without judgement are critical tools.

Don't worry so much about what you will say. Just concentrate on listening to the words that are shared with you. Your co-worker may relate the same story about the death over and over again. Listen patiently. Realize that "telling the story" is how healing occurs.

Avoid cliches

Words, particularly cliches, can be extreme painful mourners. Cliches are trite comments, often intended to provide simple solutions to difficult realities. Mourners are often told, "God only challenges people with what they can handle." or "Time heals all wounds" or "Think of all you still have to be thankful for."

Comments like these are not constructive. Instead, they hurt because they diminish the very real and very painful loss of a unique person.

Realize that Grief Bursts will Occur

Sometimes heightened periods of sadness will overwhelm the grieving person at work. These times can come out of nowhere. sometimes all it takes to bring on a grief burst is a familiar sound, a smell, a phrase. While you may feel helpless, allow your co-worker to feel the sorrow and hurt. Realize tears are a natural and appropriate expression of the pain associated with death

Don't be Judgmental

Some people return to work after the death of someone loved and act as if "everything is OK." Don't judge your co-worker who returns to work quickly. Sometimes, the routine of the workplace provides comfort and support. However, do stay available should they want to share their grief at a later time.

Activate Support Systems

If appropriate, mention your co-worker's loss and need for compassionate support to other co-workers who can offer help. The entire staff might benefit from an in-service that sensitizes then to the grief journey and how they can help support their co-worker

If you are the Supervisor

be careful about assigning new tasks or responsibilities right now.Flexible personnel policies will help the grieving worker survive during this naturally painful time. If you have an employee assistance program, be certain the employee is made aware of its availability

Our society in general doesn't always respond well to people in grief; the workplace can be even worse. You can help by acting as your grieving employee's advocate if they need extra time off or other special assistance. It's the right thing to do. besides, if the employee isn't allowed to first attend to their grief, they may not be able to effectively attend to their work

If the Person who Died was a Co-worker

When someone you have worked with dies, you will be faced with grief yourself. You may find yourself thinking about them all the time. You may feel guilty, as if you could have prevented the death somehow. You may feel angry, especially if the death was sudden or untimely. You may feel vulnerable, frightened, or depressed.

All of these grief feelings are normal and necessary. Find someone you can talk to, perhaps another co-worker who is experiencing the same feelings. talk openly with family members and friends about your co-workers death

Understanding the Significance of the Loss

As a result of the death, your co-worker's life is under reconstruction. Keep in mind that grief is unique. No two people respond to death in exactly the same way. be patient. Don't force a specific timetable for healing. Be gentle. Be sensitive. Be compassionate.

Grief is a long, painful journey. As a friend of a grieving co-worker, you can choose to help make the journey tolerable. Tell your co-worker how sorry you are and listen if she wants to talk. Be available to them in the difficult weeks and months ahead. Your support will help them more than you can imagine.

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