Trauer am Arbeitsplatz: wenn Kollege trauert: Bild mit Rose und Kerze
Bild: Myriams-Fotos, Pixabay

When a Colleague Grieves:
How to React

The article offers suggestions for colleagues and the bereaved person's manager:

  • ideas for a gesture as soon as you learn of a loss
  • gestures from a team
  • for managers: possible topics for discussion
  • some don'ts to avoid
  • phrasing tips for condolences

A trainee's sibling dies, a colleague's child is stillborn, or their mother passes away after an intense time of care. What these situations have in common: Most colleagues are shocked by someone's passing, even if they did not know the deceased or the death does not directly impact them in their workplace environment. This quickly leads to uncertainty about how to deal with the grieving colleague.

This article provides suggestions for colleagues and the bereaved person's manager.

Kollegen Brainstorming im Trauerfall
Bild: StartupStockPhotos, auf Pixabay

Bereaved Colleague: How to React?

Possible Immediate Steps

  • Blumen schicken
  • Sign and send a card from the whole team
  • Take up upcoming tasks or split the work in the team. Let the manager know
  • Offer your condolences via professional channels (email, Teams, Slack..., not WhatsApp)
  • Only if your relationship is close: brief expression of condolences via private channels, respect silence from the other side 

Don'ts in Acute Mourning

Many bereaved individuals talk about insensitive behavior from people in the environment in their acute grief. This paragraph lists some of them as food for thought. Please keep in mind that every individual reacts differently to the points listed here. The message is: think from the mourner's perspective, not from your own needs.

  • flood them with messages
  • ask / write frequently about work-related topics
  • talk about the loss with other colleagues if the bereaved person has not been explicitly agreed to this
  • switch to your own story of grief ("I felt the same way when ... died") instead of listening to them
  • write or say words of encouragement in the line of "everything will be all right" (which, by the way, no one says with malicious intent - and sometimes they slip out of helplessness in the situation).

Dos in Acute Mourning

... from colleagues, especially before and on the first day of work:

  • If necessary, take care of the physical workplace : tidy up, open the windows, turn on the heating, put flowers on the table, if this feels appropriate.
  • Greet the person.
    Prepare yourself in advance and think what you would like to say to offer condolences. Leave the opportunity to focus on the work (examples below).
  • If you are close, keep your calendar free for a tea/coffee talk during their first working days - in case they want to have company for coffee or want talk about their loss.
  • Stick to regular office rituals: Have coffee together / offer to pick them up for lunch...
  • Let the bereaved person decide if they want to join a group for coffee or lunch. Or if they prefer a smaller setting with only 1 or 2 colleagues.
  • Offer to listen if you mean it and you can cope with it.
  • Just ask what the grieving person needs for / from work.
  • If possible, offer to let the grieving person set their pace (and balance tasks accordingly).
  • Uncertain? Admit to it - for example: “I would like to ask you what you need or expect from us. I realize that I'm not sure what you might find helpful.”

Showing Empathy at Work

Tips for colleagues without close relationship

Some bereaved people long to go back to work quickly. This might lead to awkward situations, e.g. silence from colleagues that were not prepared for the grieving colleague to show up in a meeting. That said, consider preparing a sentence as a greeting or to offer your condolences.

Looking for inspiration to offer condolences?

  • I am sorry that you have to go through this.
  • I can't even begin to imagine how you are feeling.
  • I am truly sorry for your loss. This variation of the formal "I am sorry for your loss" goes a long way even with strangers if you can say it from the heart.
  • Would you like to talk about your last few weeks? (please do not ask this in the hallway or at lunch with lots of people around)
  • If you would like to talk to me about your loss, I'll could come to your office later / pick you up for a walk after word / ...
  • I wish you did not have to experience this - and still, I'm glad to see you are here.

Some Background Thoughts When Talking to a Bereaved Person

  • Turn down the pressure and urgency from work-related topics. Coping with existential events in life always comes first.
  • This can also mean: be a bit more lenient. For example, when someone is not reporting sick on time or is unfocused when handing over outstanding tasks. In times of acute grief, even reliable people can be overwhelmed.
  • Redistribute work.
  • Being considerate is great - and should not become paternalistic!
  • Be prepared for fluctuations in daily performance, mood, patience, etc. — even in the medium term, i.e. several months after the death. Because grief lasts longer than a few weeks.

This is part 4 of a series of articles.

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