How to help a colleague cope with bereavement

Unfortunately, suffering loss is a part of life. It’s almost a certainty that in your career a colleague, a subordinate or an employee will go through bereavement.

This is a very difficult situation and no defining guide exists as to how to handle it correctly – a ‘one size fits all’ approach is definitely not the case here.

“Firstly, there is no one right way to support a colleague after a bereavement,” says Amy Durden, founder of AHD Counselling, providing integrative counselling and psychotherapy. “Every person is different and so is every loss. There is also no one right way to react. There are, however, ways that are more helpful than others.”

Be human

In the first instance, be human, be compassionate, especially as the news can come while the person is at work. “As a manager or colleague, it can initially be most helpful to simply listen and offer empathy without trying to ‘fix’ anything,” says Durden. “Just listening and allowing the bereaved person to talk and cry if needed is incredibly healing. The offer of physical contact such as a hug can also be welcomed, but this is very individual.”

Recognise that this is an exceptional situation and that work comes second. The priority is to be flexible, compassionate and helpful.

“Sometimes people are unable to express grief at work and may wish to leave the building,” says Durden. “Allowing them to do what feels right for them will be most helpful, which may be leaving work very swiftly. In both instances, offer to take over their work, cancel meetings and clear their diary for them. This takes a huge weight off someone’s mind and means they can go home and be with family or friends without having thoughts of work-related tasks.”

Provide clarity

Early on, it’s imperative that the employee is engaged around how they want the situation handled, how much and when colleagues should know, clarity around time off, and how approaching a return to work can be managed. Having as many work-related questions answered early on will diminish such concerns and additional stress during the bereavement process. It is also important to maintain a dialogue during the time away and be open to the situation changing.

While perhaps not immediately appropriate to address, it is important that the employee knows company policy surrounding compassionate leave, as clarity will be a comfort once the initial shock passes. Be clear about how much time they’re allowed to take off, but also let them know that this is a unique case and more time off or flexible working patterns may be possible.

Clarity around confidentiality is vital also. “Ask how much information the bereaved person wishes to have shared with other colleagues,” says Durden. “Don’t speak to other team members about it without checking with the bereaved person first. If you haven’t told anyone, be sure to communicate this to the bereaved person. This helps when they return to work.

“It can be doubly painful for them to return to work, only to find that no-one acknowledges their loss and assumes they have been on holiday, but they assumed everyone was made aware. Or they return to find that everyone knows their personal business and that wasn’t their wish.”

Flexibility and professionalism

Being compassionate and open to change is critical when a colleague returns to work, but so too is treating them like an adult and a professional. As a manager, provide a ‘safe space’ where they can discuss their needs, what they feel they’re capable of and how this can be accommodated.

“They might want time away from clients to allow them to begin to process their own feelings before being of service to others,” says Durden. “If your clients could be impacted by a vulnerable member of staff, then consider the implications for them as well. Sometimes it is better for a recently bereaved person to have space from front-line work and this will need careful discussion.”

Once back at work, as a colleague try to tread the fine line of being aware to their emotional state without being overbearing, supportive without being patronizing and trying to include them and treat them as normally as possible to help give them some stability.

Furthermore, work can be a coping mechanism for some, so while they may appear resilient, remember what they’ve been through. “As a manager, it is vital to keep an awareness of increasing stress levels and signs of burnout or of becoming overwhelmed,” says Durden. “If you notice them disengaged, listless and anxious, or they appear to be struggling in other ways, take action to address this with them and re-offer support and adjustments to their workload.”

Be aware that the death may have caused a major disruption to their financial situation, even losing half or more of a household income; parenting responsibilities may have increased if a parent dies, or losing a sibling may mean the bereaved is assuming the care of older parents.

Extended families

“For colleagues, being supportive can be as simple as offering to chat. For less close colleagues, it can be enough to ask how they are today – keeping the focus on today can help,” says Durden.

In some instances, it is appropriate for colleagues to be available outside of work. Many workplaces are like families where strong and lasting bonds and friendships are made, so recognise that you might be a significant part of the person’s support network.

“If able, and only if you can actually commit to it, offer to support with funeral arrangements or practical day-to-day help,” says Durden. “Not everyone has a large extended family to support them after a loss and colleagues can form part of someone’s ‘chosen family’. This is not always the case, but is worth considering.”

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, don’t judge their process, says Durden. “Everyone grieves in unique ways, and however it manifests is ‘normal’, even if it differs from how you might imagine you would feel in their circumstances. Being non-judgemental allows for the bereaved person to find their own way through.”

Neil Johnson is a freelance business journalist who contributes regularly to trade publications and member organisations, covering employability, recruitment, business trends and industrial analysis.

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