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How to Support a Colleague Grieving the Death of a Loved One

By Dr. Stephen Fleming, PhD, C. Psych.

"Your first instinct when someone you know experiences a death might be to ask how you can help. But that can be counterproductive as it makes a demand on them,” explains Dr. M. Katherine Shear, a psychiatrist, clinical researcher, and the director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University. At a time when the bereaved individual is already feeling overwhelmed, this common response is often unhelpful.

Under normal circumstances, the grieving process can take weeks, months, or years. In our current environment, a loss is further complicated by the coronavirus pandemic lockdown requirements and the curtailment or cancellation of our funeral/bereavement rituals. For healthcare workers, layer in further implications when colleagues are navigating grief at the death of (numerous) patients and perhaps esteemed colleagues.

When an individual is grieving, there are no hard-and-fast rules, but guidelines can inform one’s course of action. A good starting place is to examine the nature of your relationship with the bereaved person, e.g., are you good friends or merely acquaintances, is your communication frequent or infrequent, and what is the history of your relationship?

However, one must also consider what role the organization plays in assisting employees in coping with grief. Not only can an institution’s policies and procedures support a grieving individual, but managers have a critical role in recognizing symptoms of grief and offering appropriate levels of compassion and support. 

The Role of the Manager and the Organization

Managers need to familiarize themselves with common physical and emotional reactions to loss including fatigue, feelings of anger, guilt, focus, concentration, and memory problems, and withdrawal from workplace interactions. Managers also need to recognize that employees may avoid their grief believing that showing signs of grief could be perceived as a weakness, or that they are letting down the team due to unplanned absences. 

Insensitive, unhelpful behavior from managers, colleagues, and staff can exacerbate or complicate reactions to loss. Therefore, it is prudent for organizations to develop policies on bereavement leave and suggest appropriate rituals to recognize and process the death of a fellow employee. Beyond this, it is incumbent upon organizations to foster a culture in which employees are inspired to show compassion, and where insightful, concerned managers ensure that a bereaved employee is treated sensitively and with respect and compassion.

In instances when a team member dies, the manager may not only lack confidence in how to handle the situation they may be deeply impacted themselves. A natural inclination by managers or coworkers may be writing an e-mail or offering condolences to the grieving colleague in a team meeting but consider how close you are to the person. You may not be the person they want to talk to, and, as previously noted, your actions could create more stress through a perceived obligation to respond.

When managers acknowledge the loss, they can determine what additional support may be appropriate, but sometimes just listening is what is required. Managers should make the employee aware of the company’s bereavement policy, note anniversaries, and set calendar reminders of key dates. Managers can help by offloading workload and finding backups for projects, enabling the employee to completely “log off” and care for themselves, reminding yourself grief has no timetable.

It’s often hard for the grieving individual to ask for help, and the situation can feel awkward, but it needn’t be. During a difficult time, make sure your colleagues feel your support and presence even from afar. 

Neela-Stock, S. (2020, April 10). 6 ways to help loved ones grieving deaths during the coronavirus pandemic.

In collaboration with: Vic Gladwish, Gladwish on Demand Editorial Services