When someone at work experiences a major loss, it can be hard to know how to respond—especially if it isn’t a person that you’re particularly close to. Here are some tips for handling it well, in a way that will be genuinely appreciated by your coworker and that helps keep everything running smoothly in the workplace.
Understand your Role
The ring theory of support is useful to refer to, especially if you aren’t friends with the person who experienced a loss. Just because you don’t hang out after work doesn’t mean you can’t provide meaningful support, but understanding your role and your place in your co-worker’s priorities can help you figure out how to help best.
Identify the Gatekeeper
When we experience a major loss, it’s common for a close family member or very close friend to act as the gatekeeper/manager. This is so that the person at the center of that ring of support doesn’t have to handle the logistics of a meal train or getting help with chores. Figure out who that person is, and to the extent possible make all of your offers for support through him or her.
Offer Concrete Assistance
You might be able to contribute to a meal train and/or be a point person for all of the people in your workplace who want to help. You could collect money to pay for childcare or other necessities. You could also donate vacation time to allow your co-worker to take more time off. All of those are good ideas—and you should communicate them through the gatekeeper.
Acknowledge the Loss
Most people take at least some time off after a major loss, and often find coming back to work awkward. It’s important to acknowledge the loss—don’t pretend that your co-worker was on vacation. But follow his or her lead regarding how much or how little to talk about the loss. Some people like to talk about the loss with co-workers, others feel like work is a oasis of normalcy and would prefer not to talk about his or her personal matters. A simple “I’m sorry for your loss” is often the best way to acknowledge what happened without allowing the loss to overwhelm your working relationship.
While most people do take some time off immediately after a major loss, their approach in the months afterwards can vary dramatically. Some find solace in work and even start working excessively. Others might find it hard to concentrate and have their work performance suffer. Both are normal parts of the grief process.
There are also some things you shouldn’t do when a co-worker experiences a major loss. Here are some examples:
- Pretend nothing happened;
- Bring the loss up constantly;
- Say anything related to religion;
- Try to “fix” the grief by saying things like “you’ll get married again;”
- Expect to see your co-worker outside of work if you didn’t socialize previously;
- Expect to see your co-worker when you drop off food or do chores as part of a meal train.
Co-workers’ role in supporting people who have experienced a major loss is very different from the role of family and friends but is important nonetheless. We spent a lot of time at work—which means we spent a lot of time with co-workers. Artfully managed responses to a major loss can take away a major source of stress for your bereaved co-worker and improve everyone’s workplace environment.