Working with a Grieving Co-worker

I had to say something, but I didn't know what to say. Years ago, a fellow Pastor lost his daughter in a single vehicle accident. I was out of the country at the time and six months passed before our paths crossed. I said something like, “I can only imagine how hard that must have been.” He responded, “No, you can’t! You can’t even imagine! I feel like my heart has been ripped out of my chest!

I realize now that anger is many times a part of grief, even when it’s not recognized as anger. Then, I was speechless. I stood there wishing I’d not said anything. Later, and even now, I wonder what was behind that scolding. Had someone just said something even more stupid or was it anger? I’m not sure that he intended it as a scolding. I've come to look at incidents like that one, when they come in the midst of grief, as dealing with a “snake-bit-dog.” Even the gentlest, most kid-friendly dog snaps and bites at everything and everyone that reaches out to him when he is suffering from the bite of a poisonous snake. Grieving people can react in ways that surprise both themselves and all the rest of us when they are suffering in grief.

I know that silence is not always golden. If we are expected to work together I think I need to say something. What do I say, do, react, or respond? Here are a few suggestions.

Keep in mind that grief is as individual as a fingerprint. We all grieve differently. Also, understand that the best way to deal with grief is to walk through it. We shouldn't expect to get over it; we have to go through it. Grief is not a physical sickness. If it were we could put it in a cast, have it surgically removed, or take a pill to get rid of it. But it is not a physical sickness, and it is hard, draining, work.

How Can I Help My Coworker at the Time of Death?

  • Reach out to him/her. Don’t be afraid of getting bit. You will heal, and it might help your friend to temporarily “bite someone.”
  • Contact other coworkers to let them know the situation, keeping in mind your coworker’s privacy, and Simmons’ HIPAA policy.
  • Attend the funeral, the visitation, or the memorial, if you can. Send a card, or make some other contact.
  • Offer to help in tangible ways, take food, offer to mow the yard, clean the house, run errands, etc.
  • Don’t be afraid of their tears, and don’t try to plug their tears with your hanky. “Cry as much as you need to,” is good advice.
  • Offer to share their workload if you can, some will see work as an extra burden, others will welcome it as an escape from the heavy emotions.

What Can I Say?

  • I am so sorry for your loss,” usually works well to start with. Especially if said honestly and genuinely.
  • No words of any kind will magically take the pain away, so don’t try.
  • Sometimes a hug or a gentle touch are appropriate, and can express more than words to some.
  • If you must share something, make that a memory of their lost loved one…not your own grief.
  • Mention the name of the lost loved one, if you know it.
  • Keep in mind that some need to “talk their grief to death” and might need a listening ear or a shoulder to cry on. Others need to withdraw within themselves and “wrestle their grief to death.”

Some Things to Avoid

"I know just how you feel.” Even though you might have suffered a very similar loss, unless you are me, and have just experienced what I just experienced…you can’t know just how I feel.

"It was God’s will, he/she is better off, he/she is in heaven now, everything happens for a reason.” There is a great difference between the bereaved person expressing those feelings and me saying that.

Don’t try to put a positive spin on it. “At least he’s in heaven just in time for Christmas, he doesn’t have to suffer anymore, no broken hearts for him/her anymore.”

What Can I Do at Work?

  • Listen. Some people need to talk their grief to death, and many can use a sympathetic ear. There is a great difference between listening and hearing…we all need to feel “I have been heard.”
  • Listen without judgment and without trying to “fix” the hurt or correct the wrong.
  • Be there. Don’t wait until your coworker asks for help. Offer to help.
  • Don’t be afraid of your own emotions. A tear can help lubricate things on the grief journey. When He stood with Mary and Martha outside the tomb of their brother Lazarus, “Jesus Wept.”We can too.
  • Remember your coworker on “special days.” Birthdays, holidays, anniversaries (one month after the death seems to be a significant date for many). Send a card, call, visit, offer support again. Let them know that you remember and that you care about them.
  • Be patient. Grief can last longer than we think, longer that they expect, and longer than any of us want.
  • Be aware of changes in the bereaved individual. Grief experiences change us.
  • Recommend a support group, a book, a CD, an online grief chat room, our EAP, or your Simmons Chaplain.
  • Continue your contact. Some people find themselves stuck in their grief journey. If a year or so haspassed and the grief is still getting harder, a call to our Employee Assistance Program might be a great help.

We Can Help

Though we won’t try to take their grief away, we can make sure that our coworkers don’t have to do this grief thing alone. There are resources available, booklets, articles, CDs, videos, support groups. Your Chaplain team has access to several of these, including some in electronic versions we can loan to you or your coworker. Let us know how we can help.