About a year into my career as a therapist, my mother passed away suddenly and unexpectedly. Returning to work a few days after the funeral was tough. But, the kindness of my co-workers made it a little easier.
Then, three years later, my 26-year-old husband passed away. My co-workers were incredibly supportive with their words and their actions.
Fortunately for me, I worked in mental health centers where my co-workers were well-versed in grief. But, even as a therapist who has been on the receiving end of so many kind words, I know how hard it is to find the right words to say to someone who has experienced a loss.
And when it's a co-worker, it can be even more difficult to know what to say. Whether someone on your team has a miscarriage or your supervisor's parent passed away from a terminal illness, here are a few general guidelines:
Have a Supervisor Take the Lead
If you aren't sure whether to send flowers or you aren't certain if you should attend a funeral to support a co-worker who has experienced a loss, talk to your supervisor.
When my husband passed away, my supervisor became my single point of contact. She called me and said, "Some of your co-workers want to attend the funeral but we wanted to know how you felt about that. If you want to keep your work life and your personal life separate, just let us know." Then, she communicated to my co-workers on my behalf.
The single point of contact doesn't necessarily have to be a supervisor--another co-worker who knows the person well may be best suited to check-in on the person.
Remember That Timing Matters
Saying, "I'm sorry to hear about your brother," as you pass by the person in the cafeteria may take the weight off your shoulders. But, it could send the grieving individual into a tailspin. She may have finally found a little bit of refuge from her pain and your comment could lead to another wave of grief.
But, timing can be everything and it's much more important that you offer your condolences at a time that is best for the other person--not necessarily you.
Sometimes, the end of the day is better than the middle of the work day. But, make sure you have time to talk to the person if you are going to bring it up. Be sincere in your desire to check-in with someone.
Here are three things you can say when you're at a loss for words:
1. "I'm sorry for your loss."
Sometimes, a simple acknowledgment is best. A heartfelt "I'm sorry" can mean a lot to someone who is heartbroken.
Resist getting into a lengthy explanation or talking about your own experiences with grief. Remember that when it comes to offering words of comfort, sometimes less is more.
2. "I'm thinking of you."
This can be especially helpful when someone is continuing to go through a tough time--like a close family member has been diagnosed with a terminal illness. If you believe in the power of prayer, it's a great time to say, "I'm praying for you," as well.
3. "How can I help?"
Quite often, people say, "Let me know if there's anything I can do." But they never check back in with the person to see what could be done.
Sometimes, it's best to ask, "What can I do for you?" to make it clear that you are standing by to do whatever you can. Just don't be surprised if a grieving person doesn't know what he needs.
Express Your Sentiments
It can be tempting to avoid saying anything because it's uncomfortable or because you don't want to say the wrong thing. But, ignoring your co-worker's grief may increase her pain.
If it's a co-worker you don't know well, give the person a card. Pass the card around the department to give others a chance to sign it as well. The recipient will know you care, even if you don't say anything face-to-face.