How To Cope With Coworker’s Grief

Question:

I just received a call from a company we have contract with and one of their coworkers lost her 17 y.o. son to a tragic train accident- he was passenger in friend’s car who crossed track as train was coming. Any advice as to how coworkers can approach her, support her, when she returns to work?

Signed,

Concerned and Sad


Answer:

Dear Concerned and Sad:

How very, very tragic! Here are six things that can be effective and helpful in most settings.

1. Express sympathy and condolences BEFORE the employee returns. Encourage people to write notes in sympathy cards, send emails and make their phone numbers available, well before the return date.

Sending a couple of messages of concern is appropriate. Often we limit ourselves to a card immediately afterwards, but it is good to send a plain letter too, when things have settled down a bit.

This allows the coworker to call to talk, or write, if she wishes. And, it allows fellow employees to be sure she knows of their feelings.

The coworker can return to work without the feeling that she will need to go through endless conversations and expressions of sympathy.

It is too difficult to cope with those feelings and then handle a phone call or write an email. And far too difficult to segue from “I’m so sorry” to, “Now, about that meeting we have to set up.”

From the viewpoint of the coworker, most of us can keep ourselves going if we are focused on work, but our emotions overflow when we talk about the situation. And most of us, while appreciative of the sympathy, do not want to cry at work or become upset. Often it is exhausting and demoralizing when one is trying to move forward.

That is also the advantage of talking to the employee or writing to her ahead of time. If she wants to discuss it, she can do so in safety, and can be alone afterwards if she wants. (Consider a large envelope from the office with multiple messages inside.)

2. Remind (direct if you must) employees that they should not put the coworker through the grief of instigating behind-closed-doors conversations, questions, sharing similar stories, giving the coworker poems and cards etc. at work.

Most employee will use good judgment but often there are one or two who want to be counselors, advisors or confidantes. And some people simply must be in the middle of every drama, whether they belong their or not. That is stressful and unwelcome in almost every case.

3. Encourage employees to be comfortably friendly and supportive when they see the coworker for the first time and for several days thereafter, but to attempt to keep the focus on work, as a way to help the employee get back into things.

In one office when an employee came back after the death of her spouse, she said she felt good that many people said things like, “Hi Fran! Let me know if you get busy and need me to help with anything.” “Hello, Fran, I’m going to be in the office all day if you need me to fill you in on anything.” Another brought her back a cup of coffee and said she knew she would be busy with catching up.

The woman said it let her get back to work, but in a way that also allowed employees to be more gentle than they might be otherwise. She wouldn’t have reacted well to hearty good humor or to sad-faced avoidance.

4. Within reason, let frequent vendors or clients know of the situation. That will allow them to send condolences if they wish, and also to help them avoid a blunder by asking where she’s been, or joking about something that will be particularly sensitive.

5. If the employee wants to talk about it, suggest walking outside or going somewhere out of the immediate office area, not only for their privacy and to avoid attracting attention, but to avoid the residual sad feelings of others.

Many times when someone has a death in the family, we all remember the sadnesses of our own lives and it can be tremendously upsetting, even though the employee who is remembering might not let it show.

6. Let the grieving employee guide the interactions as much as possible. Some people want to jump back into things and may even seem to be denying their grief, but they are simply dealing with it in their own way. Others may become emotional often or may prefer to avoid being with the whole group for days or even weeks.

The one thing that is stable in these situations is the comfortable familiarity of work and the people there. Let that work for everyone. Often those who are grieving are concerned they that do not embarrass themselves or make others uncomfortable, so just letting things happen as they happen is sometimes a way to avoid a forced or uncomfortable situation.

I hope these thoughts are helpful. You show sensitivity and caring to be concerned enough to ask about it.

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.